Thursday, December 12, 2013
Theater review: Controversial and raunchy, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told tries to find God
Why would anyone want to believe in a god without a sense of humor?
DALLAS Yes, the play is about Adam and Steve ... and Jane and Mable ... and yes there is full frontal male nudity, if only briefly. And oh hell yes, it is hysterically funny! Uptown Players, thankfully never a theater group to avoid the provocative or controversial, and believing that good art should spark debate, opened Paul Rudnick’s award-winning The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told amidst the swirls and flurries of rain, sleet and snow this last Thursday.
The stuff of Fox News conservative pundit nightmares, the show first opened December 1998 at the New York Theater Workshop. In a generally positive review, Ben Brantley of The New York Times called it a “seriously silly theology treatise of a play,” saying that “line by line, Rudnick may be the funniest writer for the stage in the United States today.”
The play has gone on to become popular all over the country despite controversy such as that experienced by theaters in Austin, South Hadley, Mass., and Oklahoma City among others, where, speaking at a pro-gun rally, Dan Fisher, a Republican representative and pastor of Yukon Trinity Baptist Church, called the play a “direct frontal attack” on Christians. Yes, I know, it reads like a Paul Rudnick set-up for a character.
Born and raised in Piscataway, New Jersey, Rudnick attended Yale College and also wrote the popular plays Jeffrey and I Hate Hamlet and screenplays for Addams Family Values and Sister Act among others. He was the winner of The Outer Critics Circle Award for his play Poor Little Lambs and The Obie Award, and the John Gasner Playwrighting Award for Jeffrey. He has also written two novels.
Knowing that “… trying to explain the cosmos inevitably leads to comedy,” Rudnick worked for three years on a script that posits a world beginning with Adam and Steve as well as Jane and Mable. He follows these couples through the Garden of Eden, The Flood, and Pharaoh’s Egypt and ends the first act with the Nativity. In the second act, we see the couples in the present day, with no memory of their past, as they experience the typical tribulations and glories of personal relationships. In his introduction to the play, Rudnick said, “I wanted to offend or provoke everyone equally, to allow all points of view equal mockery and equal acceptance.” He also said, “I wanted to, however comically, research the roots of faith: why do we need to believe? What terror or transcendence leads to either the invention or the discovery of a god?” Heavy questions indeed, and like most heavy questions, perhaps best answered through comedy.
And comedy is what Uptown Players provided in large doses for the Sunday matinee crowd that braved the slips and slides of the streets to get there. The actors, after having to cancel the Friday and Saturday shows, seemed eager and happy to get the show back on the boards and the audience was greatly appreciative and responsive, even if the temperature inside the Kalita wasn’t much warmer than that outside! I pitied our two leading men on stage in their first act birthday suits instead of being bundled up like Ralph’s younger brother in A Christmas Story as some of us in the audience were! Temperatures aside, we were treated to a warm, funny, perceptive, ultimately moving performance.
Director B. J. Cleveland assembles a fine cast that confidently takes the stage and makes the space their own. The script is not necessarily an easy one to direct. The first act is written broadly, very much like sketch comedy, with various scenes of Old Testament events, even though it ends with the New Testament Nativity. The second act is more traditional in its approach and plays more like a sitcom, albeit a very clever one. To make the two halves work together is not a minor task and Cleveland has handled the problem smoothly, making each act distinct and cohesive in the final effect. His handling of the comedy is masterful, and the more poignant moments work well too.
Clare Floyd Devries is given the task of creating the world in the first few moments of the show, and starting with a bare stage, except for a stage manager’s desk down stage right, elements are slowly added as called for and a new world is created bit by clever bit. Helping immensely in those first few moments are lighting by Lisa Miller and sound by Virgil Justice. Together, they take us to each location in the story. Light and sound cues are called by the Stage Manager (God?) and everything falls neatly into place. I also really like the avoidance of the clichéd rainbow for something more subtle. The second act is the interior of Adam and Steve’s modern-day loft in Manhattan. In a clever move, Ms. Devries uses the campfire as part of the fireplace, the bar from the arc as the bar, the same lamp, etc. as we’ve seen in Act One and yet somehow it doesn’t quite come together to create a believable modern-day loft. Or if it does, it’s one of somewhat questionable taste, even taking into account the over-decorating Adam has done for Christmas. Music and lighting remain well thought out, especially the choice of musical numbers played throughout the performance.
Costumes (or lack thereof!) by Suzi Cranford and wig and makeup design by Coy Covington go a long way to identify and personify each character and help amplify without overpowering, even in the Egyptian segment which must have been a fun moment to create, not to mention the terrific animal costumes. Jo Anne Hull and/or the scenic designer have come up with some clever “early Bible” props for the first act that also works when incorporated into the second.
In the role of Adam, Chad Peterson uses his considerable talent, experience and onstage charm to create a character we immediately like and identify with. We care about him and his actions and want only the best for him and that’s quite a tribute to Mr. Peterson. He’s clever without being cute and the more sensitive moments come off as entirely real. We feel in capable hands with him on stage guiding the action beat by beat.
Steve is played by Kevin Moore, and like Mr. Peterson he commands the stage with confidence and presence. If at times he seems a little self-aware, it’s not distracting and he too gains our sympathy and makes us feel welcome into the world he is helping to create. Mr. Moore’s bio mentions that the two men are best friends and the chemistry between them shows their comfort with and genuine affection for each other. The more tender moments toward the end of the play are touching and sincere and I appreciate Mr. Moore’s handling the reality of AIDS when it rears its ugly head … only to be then defeated by the beauty of cashmere! Well done.
As the stage manager, Darius Anthony Robinson is never less than wildly entertaining and totally in control of his every move as he oversees the creation of the world and guides the action on its merry way.
Jane and Mabel are played by Kelsey Ervi and Morgan Mabry Mason respectively and both are terrific in their roles. Ms. Ervi, in the “butch” role of Jane, manages to avoid being a cliché by showing as much of the character’s vulnerability as she does the stereotypical toughness. Her child-birthing scene has to be seen to be believed! Ms. Mason as Mable is especially talented and likeable and totally adept at playing naïve and over-enthusiastic in a believable manner that doesn’t make us want to slap her after two minutes! Her genuine interest in the world around her is so real and so intense that we believe every second of it. The chemistry between these two actresses also works to the advantage of the show.
Paul J. Williams commands the stage with his first entrance and continues to create hysterically believable characters throughout, from the Latecomer at the beginning through being a bunny, a pharaoh and Trey, a totally disillusioned Santa impersonator. Comic timing and experience like his is always an asset. Right up there with him, comic bit for comic bit and creating indelible characters, is the always amazing Marisa Diotalevi. If there’s a comic trick grounded in reality Ms. Diotalevi hasn’t mastered, I don’t know what it is. Her Rabbi Sharon is a character you won’t soon forget, even if her wig kept hiding her face from certain angles. Wig aside, her explanation of a wedding ceremony with or without God is a jewel.
Beth Albright & Bronze C. Hill round out the talented cast and like the others create fully rounded, fun to watch, reality-based characters.
Ms. Albright is cute and perky as Cheryl, a Utah Mormon, caught up in the Christmas party madness of Act Two. If it starts out much like Mable’s first appearance, it soon settles into its own groove and works fine. Bronze C. Hill is convincing as a priest and the leather bar rhino on the arc, not an easy switch to make! He’s also funny and competent as the go-go dancer wearing a Christmas bow in a strategic spot in the second act.
Each actor has a moment to shine and they take it. The entire cast also works hard and fearlessly to keep the pace fast and the comedy based in truth, flinging Rudnick’s zingers with ease and sureness and not afraid to tackle the bigger questions the play raises: Is there a God? If so, what form does he, she or it take for you? Can you face a world without an ultimate creator of some sort, something to pray or turn to and believe in? What sustains you? The play is a “quest” story of Adam’s uneasiness with happiness and yearning for answers, something many of us can identify with. Rudnick of course never lets the profound get too ponderous before he throws in another smart quip to “help the medicine go down.” In all, the show entertains while provoking thought, always what I like best about good theater.
Stephen Sondheim, in speaking of song writing, said that a song “like a play, should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should have an idea, state the idea, and then build the idea and develop it, and finish. And in the end you should be in a place different from where you began.” I think this play and this production do that. It’s a circuitous route, no doubt about it, but we are taken on a journey, and hopefully what is discovered is something different from where we began. Love and family, and maybe some divine power, can be the Eden we’ve been seeking. Rudnick asks, "… why would anyone want to believe in a god without a sense of humor?" And Ben Brantley ended his review this way: “In laughter, there is something like the memory of Eden.” Amen, brother, amen.
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