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This Beautiful City

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Alison Weller, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Stephen Plunkett, Emily Ackerman, and Brad Heberlee.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

That old saying about surprisingly true events, "If you saw this in a play, you'd never believe it," has rarely been more apropos than with This Beautiful City, which just opened at the Vineyard Theatre.

The theatre company The Civilians traveled to Colorado Springs in late 2006 to interview its inhabitants about the growing "mega-church" movement centered there. During their 10-week investigation, Ted Haggard, the pastor-in-chief of the enormous Colorado Springs-based New Life Church, was publicly accused of homosexuality (practiced with a prostitute, no less!) and methamphetamine use, and forced to resign amid a typhoon of acidic national publicity. The Civilians couldn't have planned it better.

They could, however, have done just about everything else better once they got back to New York. The company's quirkily incisive takes on topics such as America's misinformation super-byways in I>(I Am) Nobody's Lunch and the human lost-and-found in Gone Missing demonstrated its unique knack for dramatizing and musicalizing the everyday things we all ponder, but rarely bother to say. But Christian Evangelism and its impact on the hearts, minds, and souls of Americans of any (or no) faith is so specific and so polarizing that it practically demands something firmer and more declarative.

Steven Cosson, who directed the show and wrote it with Jim Lewis (book) and Michael Friedman (songs), has fashioned the company's interviews and its frontline perspective on history-in-the-making into the remotest, most condescendingly partisan, and least involving Civilians piece yet. Although The Civilians don't directly attack evangelicals, they hardly present them in a positive light. Most of the time they don't even try.

Haggard is depicted as a harrowingly one-dimensional hypocrite, disconnected from his congregation and, by unspoken extension, the word of God he's charged himself with spreading. While a few noncommittally nice words about him do occasionally slip through, New Life's major spokespeople are enacted as vapid, humorless, and passive-aggressive drones. The chief proponents of its youth ministry, Tag, are terminally unhip hippy wannabes bursting and hopping about with plastic, surface-level spirit, yet none displays any identifiable devotion or love.

Brandon Miller.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

This makes them all resemble setups for some uproarious punch line; since it never officially arrives, the joke feels as if it was intended to be omnipresent. There's also intentionally unintentional comedy from the out-of-touch denizens of Revolution House of Prayer, an ├╝ber-wacky mini-mega-church in nearby Manitou Springs that falters and implodes on roughly the same timeline as Haggard, contributing to the atmosphere of "these people got what was coming to them." There's no sense of that in the story of Ben Reynolds, the pastor of the black church Emmanuel Baptist who "came out" during a sermon, was ejected from his post, and went on to lead a happier, more fulfilled life. His story's parallels to Haggard's are all but decorated with blinking lights and giant arrow signs.

Meanwhile, two young get-out-the-vote types (Brad Heberlee and Alison Weller) receive sincere portrayals as proponents of an equal-marriage ballot initiative that's likely doomed to fail (and eventually does). The evening's comic center is filled by an atheist son of gay parents (Brandon Miller) who loathes New Life and all it stands for, and fans the sparks of his outrage in precisely piercing monologues. The most sympathetic figure is a pre-op male-to-female transsexual who speaks passionately of being discriminated against and unceremoniously fired - played, it's worth noting, by a female (Emily Ackerman).

True, there's a bit of similar casting bending throughout, but even the black characters are played by an African-American performer (Marsha Stephanie Blake) - to do otherwise with such sensitive topics would surely be considered dehumanizing, even offensive. But presenting a biological male as an outright female is insulting to the audience: Why should this person, called "T-Girl Christian" in the program, be gifted with an honest inner being the Christian characters are almost entirely denied?

Such legerdemain paints This Beautiful City as agenda theatre rather than documentary theatre. But worse, it makes it uninvolving theatre: Without at least the illusion of balance, it just feels combative and cantankerous. It seems fair to assume that most, if not all, of the audience will agree with The Civilians' outlook on these issues, so isn't that an even better reason to ensure that the opposition's voice is aired accurately?

Cosson's staging is smart and concise on Neil Patel's mod set; David Weiner's anxious lights complete the potent mixture edginess and safety. Friedman's combination hoedown-raveup songs are evanescently catchy, and John Carrafa's bare-bones choreography is functional but nondescript. The performers, if far from stellar singers, are all capable actors and clever mimics. But no one involved convinces you that this story needs to be told this way and with this attitude.

That counterculture-embracing personality has worked in The Civilians' previous outings, because they skirted more distant borders of the avant-garde. Here, absent checks and balances but loaded down with loaded headlines, their methods come across as false, cheap, and self-consciously theatrical. In other words, very much the way the company presents the show-religion movement. If The Civilians dislike evangelicals as much as This Beautiful City suggests, they've nonetheless come dangerously close to discovering how easy it can be to become just like them.

This Beautiful City
Through March 15
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15 Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Vineyard Theatre

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