When a trendy young theater company announces that its next subject is going to be the explosion of the evangelical Christian movement, snarky parody is a natural expectation. What's surprising about "This Beautiful City," a diverting if curiously earnest performance piece by the New York-based company the Civilians, is how it keeps its satiric powder dry.
Some things, such as the blurring of church and state, may be too important to horse around with (though please don't tell Bill Maher). In any case, the Civilians approach the show, which opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, like anthropologists out to understand a culture that for many urban theater types is as alien as some lost Amazon tribe.
Directed by Steven Cosson, who co-wrote the piece with Jim Lewis, and featuring music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, the production is part documentary drama, part musical revue. It doesn't really go far enough in either direction, but as a hybrid collage it's got charm, and a few scary developments are coolly reported.
As is customary for the Civilians ("Gone Missing," "Paris Commune"), "This Beautiful City" began as a research project. In 2006, Cosson and ensemble members descended on Colorado Springs, Colo., to investigate the community in which such evangelical powerhouses asNew Life Church and Focus on the Family make their sizable homes.
This Rocky Mountain locale is a geological wonder. "America the Beautiful" was written here by Katherine Lee Bates, gazing back on the Great Plains from the top of Pikes Peak. This information comes courtesy of a militant writer for a local alternative rag (Brandon Miller), who refuses to be cowed by the zealot crowd, which has carpeted the area with places of worship. "This town could have been like Santa Fe," he says. "And now it's like I'm living in Middle-earth."
New Life, you may recall, was in the papers a while back after a scandal erupted involving the mega-church's pastor, Ted Haggard, a male prostitute and methamphetamines. As it happened, the Civilians were there when the media storm hit, though the saga isn't handled with vituperative glee. Instead, we're allowed to experience the aftermath from the perspective of Haggard's family and congregants, and in this respect, the company faithfully serves theater's ca- pacity to widen understand- ing by presenting situations from competing points of view.
But don't get the impression that the show is as dull as catechism. The liveliness of the ensemble and the pick-me-up beat of the Christian rock numbers make even the church scenes pulse with vitality. And then, of course, there's the clash of ideologies, an ongoing source of melodrama, especially when the issue of gay marriage blows up.
For coastal denizens who think Sundays are made for golf and Chardonnay, the reach of evangelical ambition may prove startling. A Fairness and Equality leader (Alison Weller) tells us about the Christian right's goals of "dismantling social programs" to render its services all the more indispensable. And a "military religious freedom activist" (Miller again) fills us in on developments at the local Air Force Academy, in which the official policy is to "evangelize anyone who comes into the service who is unchurched."
The scenic backdrop, designed by Neil Patel, is a model of a city with cube-like buildings turned on their side and shot through with David Weiner's mod lighting. When a youth pastor (Stephen Plunkett) starts busting some moves to excite his teenage crowd about the glory of God, the effect vaguely suggests "American Bandstand," but behind the cheery facade lies the homogenous dream of a religious kingdom, in which everyone is keeping an eye on everyone else's salvation.
Obviously indebted to "The Laramie Project," the docudrama about the murder of Matthew Shepard, by Moisés Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project, "This Beautiful City" tries to produce a similar balanced snapshot of a community with an intolerant reputation. We're invited into evangelical meetings, and we hear from the ex-debauched about receiving the redemptive call, but there's disappointingly little about a spiritually arid American landscape in which organized religion is the only approved goodness game in town.
Dramatically, the piece doesn't effectively build, though there are a couple of spikes, most notably when Marsha Stephanie Blake assumes the pulpit as a fire-and-brimstone preacher sent to replace a pastor who has just come out of the closet. And Friedman, who musicalizes e-mails, chat room gossip and hot-dog religious ceremonies, keeps the action aloft on his incidental folk-pop, performed by a small band perched in partial view on the set.
A more courageously critical point of view might have galvanized "This Beautiful City," but Cosson and company clearly didn't see the need for any more preaching to the choir.
"This Beautiful City," Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 26. $20 to $45. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times