Actor Ben Curtis Launches Off-Broadway “Crusade”

Ben Curtis: son of a preacher man playing the son of a preacher man.

Only a thoughtless, insensitive soul could blame actor Ben Curtis for maybe grimacing at my Facebook message requesting a quick double-check on how we met. My frame of reference was that he waited on my table at a Lower East Side restaurant years and years ago — but, at the time, one would have needed to live under that proverbial igneous rock not to recognize Curtis as that toothy, peripatetic Dell dude. You can almost hear the fellow mustering up patience and tolerance and not muttering these words:

Two things no actor wants to be remembered for — waiting tables and cheesy commercials — and here he is, asking about both. Thanks a lot.

I assured Curtis that his Dell dude days and it’s aftermath wasn’t my focus — nor should it be. For while the actor has done a boatload of NYC theater in the last decade-plus, and further established a rising practice as a Manhattan-based yogi, his role in Dewey Moss’ drama The Crusade of Connor Stephens, currently in an open run Off-Broadway at the Jerry Orbach Theater, clearly breaks new professional ground for him. And for audiences as well, given the play’s searing subject matter.

In fact, it’s almost as if The Crusade of Connor Stephens was made for this national moment. It pivots around a fire-breathing Baptist preacher who ruthlessly dominates his family but for his gay son, who even has a husband and six-year-old daughter. Prior to the start of the play, the title character commits, in the name of unyielding faith, an act of unspeakable violence against the daughter and the husband in what can only be described as an excruciating reflection of our dilapidated American house now firmly divided against itself — complete with title character’s suicide. Press materials call the play an “allegory for the national debate over religion, tolerance and the seedlings of hate,” yet it seems to be even more than that. It’s a look at the noxious wreckage of Donald Trump’s socially destabilized America.

Curtis plays the son of that soul-shattering preacher man, whose refusal to rejoin the fold of his father’s faith is called into question at the funeral of his daughter. The play’s clear potential for explosiveness is thus fulfilled.

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When I ask Curtis to describe himself, it’s illuminating that he begins with “healing and performing artist” — a nod to his yogi work being equal to, and nourishing of, his acting career. He adds: “dark and mysterious, light and silly”; “sensitive and resilient man with an abundance of love for all things living”; “Southern boy living the dream in the big city”; and “lover of animals and nature…part monkey, part coyote, part puppy dog.” But perhaps most notably, he’s also the son of a preacher man himself:

For tickets to The Crusade of Connor Stephens, click here.

And now, 5 questions that Ben Curtis has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

“How do you give so much of yourself to your work, your art, your music, your community and still have time for yourself?”

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

“Dude, where’s your Dell?”

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What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

“How do you play gay?”

With Alec Shaw. Photo: Russ Rowland.

Given what The Crusade of Connor Stephens is about, and given your character’s back-story, what goes through your mind knowing that some people, especially in the South, cling to homophobia, bigotry and hate? As an actor, can you even think about that?

As an actor, I definitely think about this. I have to play many different kinds of characters. I’ve played some horribly ignorant, homophobic and racist characters. We have to find humanity in everything we do. That’s our job. And as tough as it can be, it can be a gift to try and get in someone else’s shoes, especially those people who most challenge us. We don’t have to like it or agree with it, but they’re out there. We weren’t all raised the same way, and as horrible as it is, fear and ignorance divide us still to this day. Therefore it’s just a testament to how much more work there is to be done. What better way to do it than through art, on a stage, in a safe place, where we can raise important questions and look at what it means to be human and morally divided.

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What is the toughest scene in the play for you personally, and why? Have you had a moment with that scene in which you wished you didn’t have to play it?

The toughest scene is when I have to let my father’s words pierce through me and crack open my shell and consider that maybe I am living in sin and should leave my husband and rejoin the church. Basically go against everything I am. I sometimes wish I didn’t have to play that scene — or most of the scenes, because I have to sit, mourning, for so long, but it’s all about the catharsis and trajectory of the entire piece, which reveals our fragile humanity.

Your embrace of a healthy lifestyle is great, as is how public you’ve been about your post-Dell life. If you could re-encounter your former self, what three things would you tell him? Would he hear you?

As my “former self,” I know he would hear me. I’ve always been on a spiritual path and always pursued health and wellness. However, I wasn’t always ready to practice it on the level I do today. That just comes with living life. You can’t teach that. Only life can teach that. So I guess my three things would be:

  1. Hang on. It gets better.
  2. Trust the universe.
  3. Never stop doing what you love but most importantly, love yourself first.