March 11, 2008

Theater Review: ‘This Beautiful City’ knows not what it needs

(Actors Theatre presents Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis’ “This Beautiful City” through March 29. Directed by Steven Cosson. Part of the 32nd Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.)As it must, the show went on Friday night at Actors Theatre, with the third production of the 32nd Humana Festival of New American Plays, “This Beautiful City.” A full house was expected, but the inclement weather left many seats vacant. Several people who did attend, however, were fervent fans of The Civilians, the troupe that comprises the core of this rather long and manipulative play.“This Beautiful City” is set in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the location is the show’s most dynamic character. Situated at the base of majestic Pikes Peak, the Springs is home to numerous military bases, the U.S. Air Force Academy and NORAD. It also houses James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and several evangelical Christian churches, including the influential megachurch New Life, formally led by Ted Haggard until he was found to be cavorting with gay male prostitutes.“City,” written after 100-plus interviews and years of investigations into the larger experience of being an evangelical Christian, attempts to sympathetically analyze those worship practices and also illuminate the multiple realities of a community with such a polarizing religious presence. Imagine “The Vagina Monologues” with Christian pop music and a set.Brad Heberlee and Stephen Plunkett open the play with a scary approximation of a rousing evangelical worship service, with actors in the aisles, hands raised, waiting to be saved. The original songs by Michael Friedman reflect the sound (and sentiment) of this type of worship. The songs help to push the play along, although that effect waned; it could be the gimmick runs thin because the play runs too long. A steady stream of monologues would have been more effective, but the attempts at narrative flow, interrupted by vignettes meant to exhibit an even-handed treatment of the subject matter, suggest the troupe may have bitten off too much by trying to stay above the subject matter. In the end, the tone is condescending.At last year’s Humana Festival, the exceptional “Batch” was staged in a gay bar, and provided an example of how to tell a story without a conventional storyline. “Batch” successfully examined the issues surrounding marriage from every angle imaginable.Emily Ackerman’s portrayal of a transgender Colorado Springs resident is charming and engaging; she presents a story that depicts one of the most unprotected and marginalized segment of our population.But the overarching problem with “This Beautiful City” might be that it doesn’t quite fit in with The Civilians’ template for staging investigative theater. The issue of how personal beliefs exist amid politics is worth exploration, but it might do better in the hands of a writer more sympathetic to theater’s conventions. The narrative thread would be suitable for an entire play on the theme of personal freedoms vs. personal beliefs. Ultimately, the scope of this script reflects the scope of this nation —  too large and unwieldy to actually accomplish much. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com