Dogma Doo: “The Book of Mormon”

Elders Price (Andrew Rannells) and Cunningham (Josh Gad) spread the Word. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Broadway’s The Book of Mormon is a certified mega-success. Created by South Park’s Matt Stone and Trey Parker, along with Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez, the show won a passel of Tonys a few months ago, upped its prices so that it’s now the most expensive ticket on Broadway, and is sold out until 2012. Ben Brantley of the New York Times led the unanimous acclaim by proclaiming it the “the best new musical (so far, anyway) of the 21st century.” (Somehow, his parenthetical comment doesn’t do quite enough to curb the hyperbole.) It’ll run for years.

I loved Stone and Parker’s 1999 movie South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut. Full of crassness and obscenity and genuine wit, this satire of American mores and myths is one of the great movie musicals, beautifully constructed and magnificently, hilariously scored (by Parker and Marc Shaiman, who went on to do Hairspray and the new Catch Me If You Can). Impossibly smart, it’s also unbelievably funny. With a pastiche of songs that satirized Les Miz, The Little Mermaid, and the excesses of contemporary pop, as well as displaying a genuine affection for traditional Broadway razzmatazz, it demonstrated an exquisite knowledge of musical comedy conventions and construction. So of course, I (along with the rest of the world) looked forward to seeing their attempts at a genuine Broadway musical.

Almost no one has had a single negative comment about The Book of Mormon. Even the Mormon Church released a surprisingly measured response: “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.” I tend to be wary of critical consensus, although sometimes it’s warranted: The Producers and Hairspray are cases in point. The shows, when I finally got to see them, met the sky-high expectations raised by their rapturous reviews. With The Book of Mormon I was hoping I’d be able to join the general huzzahs.

But as I sat in the Eugene O’Neill theatre, watching the carefully calibrated and choreographed (in all senses of the word) spectacle proceed, a creeping sense of disappointment began to set in. The crudeness and obscenity didn’t seem fresh so much as tiresome and strained. The set-up isn’t especially clever, nor is it especially fair. The Mormon Church gets off rather lightly (though not its dogma, which deserves what it gets), but the production’s treatment of Africa, more specifically Uganda, where the two young Mormon protagonists are sent on their mission, doesn’t sit well. Using the ravages of AIDS, poverty, warlord tyranny, and sexual violence as vehicles for musical comedy requires a finer sensibility than Stone and Parker’s. (One of the few things that worked in their 2004 comic marionette movie Team America: World Police, was the song “Everyone Has AIDS,” from the fictitious Broadway musical Lease. But in this case, Stone and Parker weren’t dealing with the plight of AIDS victims, they were puncturing the fatuousness of Rent, a ripe target.)

To be fair, much of the show is genuinely hilarious, and the score has several highlights, especially at the beginning. “You and Me (but Mostly Me)” zings Wicked’s “Defying Gravity” (in about half the time of the original) as Elder Price (Andrew Rannells), the golden boy of his particular class of missionaries, sings of the things he’ll accomplish, as long as the screw-up assigned to accompany him, Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad), stays out of his way. Several numbers have a peppy Up-with-People hokiness that gives the audience a feel-good buzz even as they laugh at the material. (“Two by two, / We’re marching door to door! / ‘Cause God loves Mormons/ And he wants some more.”) But things begin going wrong with one of the more infamous songs, “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (a spoof of The Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata”). “Eebowai” gives away its joke (what the phrase actually means) too soon and then goes on trying to top it with relentless (and unfunny) crudeness. The show and song would be better served with the punch line saved for the song’s end.

The comedy rule of three is no longer of any use to Stone and Parker. They too often bludgeon you with repeated jokes. One character’s complaint of a maggot-infested scrotum is repeatedly endlessly. “Clitoris” and “clit” are mentioned incessantly, and barely a minute goes by where the F-word isn’t spoken. (In the South Park movie, the truly fabulous song “Uncle Fucker,” a joyous orgy of F-bombs, worked because it came out of the blue. Nothing prepared you for it, and it was genuinely shocking as well as riotous. You couldn’t quite believe you’d heard what you just heard.) And quite frankly, the creators’ decision to set the show in Uganda is a large part of why the crudeness and obscenities don’t work. Stone, Parker, and Lopez clearly wanted a locale where the problems were too huge, too overwhelming, for the consolations of Mormonism, but piling on compulsory female circumcision, AIDS, and numerous other African miseries, expecting us to laugh at their repeated mentions, is just too much.

Elder Price sings the sweeping, very funny anthem, “I Believe,” in an attempt to convert the evil warlord who’s made life hell for the village where the missionaries have been assigned (“And I believe!/ That in 1978, God changed his mind about black people!” the chorus echoing soulfully “Black people!” and “I believe! /That God lives on a planet called Kolob!”) But at the conclusion, the warlord’s response takes place with the lights down, and because we don’t trust the writers, we assume from Elder Price’s screams that something truly terrible is happening. (We assume he’s being raped.) What actually happens isn’t revealed until several scenes later, and it turns out to be a crass joke that might have been funny with cartoon protagonists, but doesn’t seem so funny when embodied by actual people.

There are other problems as well. Directors Parker and Casey Nicholaw (who also did the choreography) don’t properly delineate the other Ugandan missionaries (most of them are indistinguishable), so in the song “Turn It Off,” a paean to the glories of repression, you can’t keep track of which Mormon is which, and whose story is whose. When Elder Price has his moment of doubt, the musical number “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” is clumsily staged and confusedly designed. (It’s an excess of ridiculousness that puzzles more than it delights.)

For the first-act finale (“Man Up”) they rely on a device used in the South Park movie, (and borrowed from Les Miz and countless other musicals) where strains and phrases from all the songs we’ve already heard show up in medley and in counterpoint. But here the tunes don’t mesh as well as they did in South Park, and the score feels forced and awkward. And in “Joseph Smith, American Moses,” a number that goes on way too long, and in which we’re meant to find hilarious all the obscenities we’ve already heard too many times, the villagers enact a pageant on Mormonism for some Church higher-ups. (The number’s inspiration: the far more charming “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” from The King and I.)

Andrew Rannells seems born to play the part of Kevin Price, the star Mormon pupil from whom big things are expected. Tall, blandly non-threateningly handsome, clean-cut, he possesses a broad face, large white teeth and perfect hair. Dressed in the emblematic short-sleeved white shirt, black tie, and high-waisted black trousers, he’s the essence of the white (really white) Mormon missionary—earnestness personified. (Irony is a foreign language to Elder Price.) He also sings in a nasal, square, slightly dorky voice, but which has surprising range and control. Faith, fervor, and idealism beam from his eyes, and his inevitable crises of belief are both touching and funny.

Unfortunately, I was less taken with Josh Gad’s performance as Arnold Cunningham, the screw-up assigned to be partners with Elder Price. (Cunningham serves the same function as the role of George Lewis in Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime—the idiot successful in spite of himself.) Cunningham is a chunky, attention-deficit-disordered geek, who has never actually read the Book he’s supposed to be preaching. He’s also prone to outrageous lies whenever he feels slightly uncomfortable. Gad is willing to do anything for a laugh. He throws his voice around, alternating between weird, Peewee-Herman-esque vocalizations, full-voiced yells, and hiccup-y giggles. But manic, comic craziness is not a character choice, and his Cunningham remains a collection of tics, spasms, and impulse control problems that never gels into a real person (even within the confines of Stone, Parker, and Lopez’s insane world).

Nikki M. James has a winning sweetness as the village girl who becomes the first convert (she also has a hell of a voice), and the rest of the cast is talented and game.

The show’s eventual “thesis” (the fact there is a thesis is a big part of why the show disappoints) is that as long as you don’t take the dogma too seriously, all religions are equivalent and can actually be helpful, no matter how far-fetched their particular scriptures and strictures. Without giving too much of the plot away, the villagers are taken in by Elder Cunningham’s ridiculous embellishments of the Book of Mormon, (which he hasn’t read, remember)—a combination of popular sci-fi movies involving lots of frog-fucking (don’t ask)—and their lives are made better. Improbably so, even for a Stone and Parker creation. Christopher Durang eviscerated Catholic dogma in his hilarious one-act Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. Stone, Parker and Lopez do the same on a smaller scale for Mormonism, but at play’s end they wimp out, dismissing the tragedies of Africa and shrugging their shoulders with a “hey, dude: it’s all good” message. This time out, it ain’t.

The missionaries take a detour through "The Lion King" on their way to Uganda.

The Book of Mormon will play forever at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York. It’s effectively sold-out, but there are some standing-room and lottery tickets available at each performance. More information can be found at www.bookofmormonbroadway.com.

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Miracle Workers: Masquers Playhouse’s “The Marriage of Bette and Boo”

Love and Marriage: From left, Paul (David Weiner), Bette (Michelle Pond), Joan (Anne Collins), and Margaret (Ellen Brooks). Photo: Adam Telfer.

Christopher Durang’s 1985 play The Marriage of Bette and Boo deserves to be considered a classic of American theater, yet many people have never heard of it, let alone seen it.  Even folks who love Durang’s other work are likely not to have encountered it, or having encountered it, are likely not to comprehend it. This is somewhat understandable given its surprising tonal shifts from comedy to tragedy, its comic non sequitor dialog, and the highly stylized portrayals of the extended family of the show’s narrator, Matt “Skippy” Hudlocke.  (In my first encounter with the play, reading the script, I didn’t much understand it myself.) Frank Rich’s respectful but ultimately negative review of the original New York production, in which Durang himself portrayed Matt, compared the show to The Glass Menagerie, mainly due to its autobiographical nature and the narrator/son being the playwright’s alter ego.  I’ve seen a videotape of that original New York production with its amazing cast—in addition to Durang, it starred Joan Allen, Mercedes Ruehl, Olympia Dukakis, and Richard B. Shull—and it’s clear that Rich missed how the comedy and the sorrow work together, how the broad strokes with which the characters are at first painted coalesce into a vivid reality, and that what Durang achieved was nothing less than an absurdist Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  This thinly disguised portrait of Durang’s own dysfunctional family, troubled by unhappy marriages, alcoholism, and broken dreams, looking to the insufficient, even deleterious, balm of Catholicism to ease their pain, is an uproariously funny, profoundly moving, and achingly beautiful act of both compassion and forgiveness.

So someone please tell me what the hell a small amateur community theater in sleepy little Point Richmond is doing putting on this play? What, pray tell, is The Marriage of Bette and Boo doing in a season that features such crowd-pleasers as The Musical of Musicals, The Hot Mikado, and The Mystery of Irma Vep?  And how could it possibly be any good?

The Masquers Playhouse production, despite its tiny budget, its amateur actors, its rough edges, is, unbelievably, astonishing.  This can be largely credited to the skill and love lavished on the show by its two directors, Peter Budinger, who also portrays Matt, and DC Scarpelli.  Budinger and Scarpelli fell in love with the show as undergraduates at Yale and somehow convinced the Masquers to take a risk that very few would.  Bette and Boo will be puzzling to many and offensive to some, qualities that most community theaters go out of their way to avoid.

Matt, called Skippy by his mother after her favorite Jackie Cooper movie, narrates the story of his devout Catholic family: his mother Bette (Michelle Pond), desperately trying to have another child but suffering stillbirth after stillbirth; his father Boo (Craig Eychner) turning to drink as a respite from the horrors of his marriage and each failed birth, paternal grandmother Soot (Nancy Sale) who nods and smiles as her husband Karl (Jerry Telfer) mocks and insults her; maternal grandmother Margaret (Ellen Brooks) who strides confidently through the chaos around her as if unaware of the miseries of her life, which include a husband who makes noise but can’t speak (David Weiner) and two other daughters besides Bette: Joan (Anne Collins) trapped in a miserable marriage of her own, and the sweet and awkward Emily (Vicki Zabarte), who has so subsumed the lessons of Catholicism that she’s crushed by her own sense of guilt.  (She apologizes for everything, even her own existence, going so far as to prepare apologies in advance, for future wrongs.)

The show does start out on slightly rocky footing.  The timing of the comic bits doesn’t always work as it should, and cues aren’t always picked up as quickly as they could be.  Not all of the actors have sufficient technique and training to carry off Durang’s unique absurdist style, but the production begins to settle into its own rhythms, and the amateurish quality of some of the acting, incredibly, begins to work.  In using people who aren’t professional actors (though many in the cast have extensive credits), people who look like normal people, people who are normal people, you stop seeing actors on the stage, and you begin to see the folks you know: You see your neighbors, you see your family.  It also helps that as the two title characters, Michelle Pond and Craig Eychner are better than anyone has a right to expect.  Pond’s Bette chatters breezily and voluminously as she repeatedly tries to give her life purpose by giving birth to more babies, all of them, save Matt, stillborn.  Craig’s Boo suffers stoically, turning to drink for some small release from his unbearable life, and begging Bette to stop trying to have another child.  His Boo dies a little more with each new stillborn birth.  When he finally breaks down, it’s almost unbearable, like the first time you saw your own father cry.

Budinger gives a very smart performance as the observant, perceptive Matt.  When playing the child Matt, he simply sits on the floor, and watches the peculiar unhappy adults around him.  He doesn’t change his voice or adopt any childish mannerisms and you accept him as the 10-year-old Matt completely.  You see the direct connection between the bewildered 10-year-old and the bewildered adult.  When his mother asks the now-grown Matt if he thinks God is punishing her, he responds, ”I don’t believe that God punishes people for specific things.  He punishes people in general… for no reason,” probably the most succinct statement of absurdist philosophy ever written. As Matt, Budinger puzzles out the drives and desires that lead the adults around him to grief and despair, watching but never condemning.

As Matt’s paternal grandparent’s, Telfer’s Karl drinks and insults his wife, accusing her of “not saying one sensible word in thirty years of marriage,” while Sale’s Soot (the origin of the nickname is a running gag) grins and laughs, trying to pass off his remarks as being all in fun. Telfer and Soot look like someone’s grandparents, and though it’s sometimes hard to hear Telfer’s foggy growl of a voice, you believe that this couple stays locked in their unhappiness because they can’t conceive of anything better.

On the distaff side, Brooks is a marvel as Bette’s mother.  Margaret is in some essential way immune to the suffering of others, even confessing to us that she’s glad of her adult children’s failures because it keeps them at home with her.  That her husband makes incoherent noises (possibly due to a stroke, but never really explained) and literally can’t communicate (in a family where even those who speak clearly still can’t make themselves heard) isn’t really a burden to her.  She’s found her way through life and doesn’t need anyone challenging her near-pathological approach.  But Brooks also makes Margaret charming, probably the only one of the four grandparents that you could actually stand to spend time with in real life, and it’s clear that her self-assuredness and self-deception is what allows her to survive. In one of the final scenes, she receives her life’s awful reward of senility, and Brooks makes your heart break for Margaret as well.  Weiner and Collins are used extremely well, and Robert Love in the dual roles of the priest and the doctor—the two external authority figures that reign over Bette and Boo’s lives, one sacred and one secular, both of no use whatsoever—has some very funny moments.  As the priest conducting a marriage counseling session, he flops on the floor and imitates a piece of bacon sizzling.  (It’s as helpful as anything else the priest does.)

As the ever guilty, ever responsible Emily, Vicki Zabarte is probably the least experienced actress on the stage. But under the directors’ gentle guidance, her own apparent sweetness and gentleness become Emily’s traits.  She’s the family’s holy fool, giving up her own life to minister to them, convinced that other’s woes are brought on by her own spiritual lapses: she hasn’t prayed hard enough or often enough.  Zabarte eventually makes Emily’s devotion as unbearably tender as it is ineffectual.

In conceiving this production, Scarpelli and Budinger use enlarged old-style snapshot borders, scalloped by pinking shears, cornered by those old gummed picture holders found in many a family album, as the primary scenic elements.  Sometimes they exist as empty frames that surround the characters, and at other times, they are filled with a two-dimensional background that defines the setting. It works brilliantly.  Durang’s play has 22 scenes in its two acts, most of them short and quick—figurative snapshots. The directors also handle the play’s crazy, mixed-up chronology with extreme lucidity.  You’re never confused about where you are in these characters’ stories despite Durang’s purposeful hopping around in time.

But it’s difficult to know whether to shower more praise on the directors’ deep understanding of this play or on their amazing work with the actors. Durang’s miraculous script uses humor and compassion to tinge the miseries of his characters’ lives with beauty.  Budinger and Scarpelli have done the same in this miraculous staging.  You may see a better and more skilled production of this play. You’re not likely to see a more heartfelt one.

Death and Sorrow: Soot (Nancy Sale) comforts Boo (Craig Eychner)

The Marriage of Bette and Boo plays through April 30, at the Masquers Playhouse, 105 Park Place, Point Richmond.  For tickets and other information, call 510-232-4031 or go to http://www.masquers.org.