- This Beautiful City
- By Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis
- With music and lyrics by Michael Friedman
- Produced by The Civilians at Studio Theatre
- Directed by Michael Friedman
- Reviewed by Tim Treanor
The difference between reality theater and reality television is that the aim of reality theater is to render difficult and complicated truths, whereas reality television is just bad improv. This Beautiful City sets out to create reality theater. Because the truths it renders are simple and unsurprising, it does not fully succeed. But because the work was honestly done, and the artists present it with skill, there is hope that a more creative examination of the play’s contents may ultimately yield more insightful material.
This is a play about Evangelicals who believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, touches them and directs their lives in very specific ways. To create this play, the Civilians went to Colorado Springs, Colorado, the “Evangelical Vatican”, and scored as many interviews as possible with the Evangelicals and their foes. Their plan: to render a true picture of the Evangelical phenomenon by creating, in a stage representation, a true picture of the responses their questions received. Yes, and there’s music, too – good music, written around the show’s themes in the Christian-rock style, and crisply executed by a tight band (Anders Eliasson, Gabriel Mangiante, and Robin Rhodes).
The Civilians discovered – and this could not have been too surprising – that Evangelicals believe they have found the path to salvation, and would like you to join them on that path. Most religions make it their business to find the way to eternal life, and, having found it, to use coercive means to scurry the rest of us along it. The matter, after all, is of high importance. As a billboard for the dominant Megachurch, the New Life Church, advertises to a surprised San Francisco minister (Brad Heberlee), “Questions? We have answers.”
The answers appear not to be as straightforward as the New Lifers would prefer they be. Evangelicals face this dilemma: like virtually all religions, they urge us to control our impulses, particularly our carnal impulses. But Evangelism is itself an impulsive religion, in that practitioners believe they feel God communicating directly to them, and that from these feelings they can discern His will. Evangelicals, like religious people the world over, look to their leaders to help separate their godly and ungodly feelings. Thus, when Pastor Ted Haggard (Stephen Plunkett), the head of the New Life Church, suddenly confesses to a homosexual liaison (and to buying Crystal Meth) the faithful are unmoored, and shame pours onto the pool of love and obedience in which they had previously bathed.
It is an old story, of course, that our leaders have feet of clay, and that their enemies take their human fallibility as evidence of the defect of the message while their friends see it only as evidence of the defect of the messenger. The Civilians tell this old story, focusing also on the Evangelical’s misbegotten hostility to homosexuality. The result is a play which is easy to follow because it so vigorously conforms to our preconceptions, but which presents few real insights. Evangelical after Evangelical betrays his littleness of spirit with some verbal faux pas, and the result, taken as a whole, seems to be a religion whose sole purpose is to torment gay people. (All dialogue, the Citizens inform us, was taken from actual interviews. Editing, however, is the prerogative of the authors).
While the overall truth of the piece seems yet to be fully realized, some of the characters are complex, beautifully-rendered human beings. Credit for this should be laid at the feet of the actors. In particular Emily Ackerman (last seen here as Lisa Kron in Arena’s Well), gives nuanced, specific performances in several roles, most notably as a dedicated Evangelical who cannot square her faith with her love for her gay, decidedly non-Evangelical father. Regrettably, the only other characters who have not fully quaffed the Evangelical Kool-Aid.are a loopy religious conscientious objector who runs pictures of men kicking churches in his alternative publication, a sharp-tongued ex-Air Force Officer who objects to the Academy’s outrageous evangelism of its cadets (both played by Matthew Dellapina) and the ex-Minister of a Baptist Church (Marsha Stephanie Blake).
Blake, as the ex-Minister’s successor, delivers a stemwinder of a sermon near the end of the play with such pitch-perfect instinct that I half-expected the audience (composed principally of attendees from the American Theater Critic’s Association, which was conferring in Washington this week) would stand up and say Amen, or even follow her out of the building. They did not, but it shows the play’s real potential: not to demonstrate that Evangelicals can be churlish dopes – we know that – but to show us why people turn to religion, and the good they dream of doing, just around the next corner.
- Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission.
- When: Wednesdays through Sundays until July 6. Evening shows at 7.30; Saturdays and Sundays matinees at 2.30. There will be an additional show on Tuesday, July 1 at 7.30, and no show on Friday, July 4.
- Where: The Metheny Theatre at Studio, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC.
- Tickets: $39-$57. Info at the website.