Atheist’s Paradise

Atheist’s Paradise is, at bottom, an extended memorial service for Henry Daniel “Doc” Johnson, philosopher, pilot and football coach for Midvale United Methodist University. Regrettably, this earnest, inert drama, like its protagonist, requires the services of a pathologist. Stand back; I will open.

“He was the smartest man, by far, that I ever knew,” says the somber Freshman Sheila Lancaster (Rebecca Phillips), and the kindest, and the funniest, and the strangest, and so she lays on the encomiums until we imagine that old Doc Johnson must have been a combination of Mr. Chips and Mr. George Bernard Shaw. But then the great man himself (Nick Torres) appears, a cheerful balding cherub in a Santa beard – Mr. Chocolate Chips, perhaps – and we are then subjected to one hundred five minutes of such relentless ordinariness that we feel we deserve some sort of diploma, or at least academic credit.

Nick Torres and Rebecca Phillips

We are prepared – by the show’s title, by Ms. Lancaster’s eulogy, and by the appearance of two supernatural beings (Cassandra Newman and the sonorous-voiced Jan Forbes) who seem to be considering charges of heresy and other nastiness against Doc – to see a snarling iconoclast, ripping his charges from the sheltering arms of their Methodist faiths by the force of his relentless, unbending God-denying logic.

But kindly old Doc Johnson is nothing of the sort. He teaches a course in Basic Philosophy,  a training which teaches its students to think critically about the things they have assumed to be true. This includes not only the existence and the benefice of a deity but also the nature of time and of knowledge itself. If it takes, the end result of such a class is not that the student disbelieves in God (or, for that matter, in time) but that she emerges a little less smug about her own assumptions. You probably took a class like that yourself, even if you, like me, went to a religious college.

His antagonist is Jim Thompson (Claude Stark), MUMU’s new President. Thompson’s dilemma is that his college is running out of money. So he implores Doc to give up his classes so that he can spend more time on football, which Thompson believes will result in more revenue for the U. He urges Doc not to embrace his controversial positions so loudly, or so publically. He even wants Doc to stop giving flying lessons. In the meantime, he is plotting to beef up the business school and the computer science department.

There are such serious disconnects in this play that I wonder whether playwright Bill Goodman has observed the writer’s basic commandment to know his subject. For example, there are schools in which football is an important part of the revenue stream. They are characterized by head coaches with million-dollar contracts and a phalanx of assistants and a team full of future high NFL draft choices. MUMU is clearly not one of these.

Doc is in debt and must give flying lessons for income; he has one undergraduate assistant, and the first thing he says to his new team is that none of them will ever play in the NFL. So how is it that President Thompson imagines that Doc will provide the financial salvation of the school on the gridiron? Or consider this: Doc, worried about the future of the school, delivers an eloquent address to – the student government! The student government is concerned with (1) the Springsteen concert, (2) booze on campus, and (3) the war in Afghanistan. The future of the U, past their graduations, is not high on the list. Doc should have addressed the Faculty Senate, which – as Virginia Board of Visitors head Helen Dragas found out to her chagrin – cracks the whip at most universities.

Not Recommended
Atheist’s Paradise
Closes November 25, 2012
Woolly Mammoth Melton Rehearsal Room
641 D Street, NW
Washington, DC
1 hour, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $15
Friday thru Sunday
Details
Tickets
But the most serious problem is that Doc is simply not the controversial thought leader he is made out to be. We see him help daddy’s-girl Lancaster to think for herself, and the self-destructive Bob Jones (Victor Maldonado) to stop cutting himself, but that is not controversial, even for Methodists. Doc is personally an atheist, but that does not stop him from going out drinking with the chaplain (Newman), and if he utters an attack against God, either in the classroom or on the football field, we do not hear it. As for Thompson, his principal mission seems to be the unremarkable one of improving the b-school and the computer science program until, seemingly without motive, he unilaterally decides to cancel Doc’s Intro to Philosophy class already in progress and require him to stop giving flying lessons in his spare time, thus rendering the University liable to lawsuits from students and from Doc himself.

This is accordingly a drama without real or credible conflict. While director Megan Behm’s staging is occasionally awkward – actors look at the floor and sometimes turn their backs to the audience while speaking, and Lancaster, interviewing Doc, takes copious notes even though she has turned on a recorder – the cast is generally competent. However, even at this late point in the run, they occasionally confuse their commonplace names – Jones, Johnson, Thompson.  This is a sign of a fatal failure to make characters memorable, even to the actors who play them.

The Edge of the Universe Players 2 is a new company (or a revival of an old company). Its proclaimed mission is to create theater which asks big, basic questions. That is a noble ambition, but it must be subordinate to the mission of all theater: to tell a compelling story.

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Atheist’s Paradise, by Bill Goodwin, directed by Megan Behm, featuring Jan Forbes, Cassandra Newman, Rebecca Phillips, Nick Torres, Claude Stark and Victor Maldonado. Lighting design by Brian S. Allard; sound design by Edward Moser; set design by Brooke A. Robbins; costume design by Alison Samantha Johnson. Kathryn Dooley is the stage manager.

Other reviews

Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide
Rebecca J. Ritzel . City Paper
Celia Wren . Washington Post

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