The show: Connecticut Repertory Theatre's production of Theresa Rebeck's “O Beautiful”
First Impressions: Playwright and TV writer Theresa Rebeck creates a messy, melodramatic work as she attempts to deal with the issues of school bullying, teen pregnancy and teen suicide. By placing it in an American history and spiritual context, she gives it some life but only thanks to Jesus — literally. Will Haden's cool-dude prophet is the best part of the play.
The sometimes-surreal work is crudely compiled and as sophisticated as one of those '70s TV “After-School Special”s for latch-key kids. There are some good performances in the CRT company of students and professional actors but despite a much better second-act, the overlong, overwritten play is overall a chore and a bore.
Jesus?: Actually the conceit of Jesus — not to mention John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin — coming back to explain their original ideas is a lively and engaging idea. Trouble is, these scenes are the sole bright spots in an otherwise didactic play.
What’s it about?: One young teen, Lenny, messes up the words to “America the Beautiful” and is traumatized by a pack of school bullies. He lives in an increasingly intolerant and paranoid, predominantly-white community which pressures his father to start arming his family, egged on by a smooth-talking talk show host who uses the Founding Fathers as validation for his extreme right–wing views. Meanwhile another “outsider” teen, Alice, (nicely played by Hannah Kaplan) is a victim of date rape. Finding herself pregnant she seeks responsibility, support and ultimately an abortion — all the while getting council from a sympathetic Jesus.
Sound heretical: Actually, it isn’t, and as played with sweet sincerity by second-year MFA actor Haden, this Jesus is more forgiving than his followers.
Which is…?: How religious and political leaders twist the words and ideas of Jesus and this country’s original politicians for their own purposes. Jesus’ “I never said that” becomes more than a running joke and Franklin’s “We had no intent, we had debate” becomes a sad reminder of how far we’ve strayed.
The modern-age debate of the play climaxes in an out-of-control town meeting that will ring true in its demonizing atmosphere. But the name-calling sounds just as rabid as it was at the start of the country’s beginning, Franklin’s statement not-withstanding.
Rebeck also strains to make a connection between “outsider” Alexander Hamilton who pushed for a unified federal approach to the new country — and was vilified for it by other Founding Fathers — and the young student Lenny (sensitively played by Coles Prince) who is being bullied by his school peers, with the exception of Alice.
Other performances?: Laurence Lau gives a finely measured performance as the savvy talk show host; While most of the other performances succumb to Rebeck’s caricature depictions, David McCann, Whitney Andrews and Kit Flannagan are all splendid in finding nuance to the stereotypes.
Who will like it?: Progressives, American nuns, Howard Zinn.
Who won’t?: Conservatives, bullies, Bill O’Reilly.
For the kids?: Students of junior high school age and above will relate to the subject matter though even they may be daunted by the length.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Well-intentioned play tries to connect too many religious, political and theatrical dots in strained play and production.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: It’s commendable that two of the state’s professional theaters associated with universities are tackling shows that challenge American history during this presidential election. Yale Repertory Theatre is presenting “American Night” and, interestingly enough, both works deconstruct flawed American history from a particular perspective in a highly theatrical way.
The basics: “O Beautiful’’ plays through Oct. 14. at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre on the UConn campus in Storrs. Running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 10 and Oct. 11 at 7:30; Friday and Saturday, Oct. 12 and Oct. 13 at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 14 at 2 p.m. Tickets rage from $6 to $30. Information: 860-486-2113 and www/crt.uconn.edu.
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