In the future, posits Eric Coble's play, "Virtual Devotion," at the El Portal Center for the Arts' Studio Theatre, we'll be praying to Jesus in front of our TVs, or at least trying to make a buck off those doing the praying.
This doesn't sound terribly different from the present, when televangelism has continued its prosperous trend since the go-go 1980s and when more of us seem to be hooked on TV than ever before. In fact, the only change in Coble's future is that we will be able to operate our various electronic devices by voice activation. That, and the advent of something apparently so much worse than AIDS that it can only be called "the mystery plague."
Besides, the production look of director Dana Marley-Kolb's staging (Mark McCandless did the set and lights, Steve Shaw the sound and Diane Ross the costumes) isn't futuristic at all.
But what the staging tells us more effectively than the play itself is how isolated people will continue to be, glued to their sets and connecting with others mainly over their wireless phones. It's hardly a surprise when Coble reveals that Anne (Laurie Cole), who phone-pitches for the Happy Halo Ministry and sits on her sofa at stage right, is the daughter of Ruth (Elizabeth Clift), who tries to make a killing from having seen the face of Ezekiel in a cup of tapioca, and Pete (Peter Husmann), who runs the mega-million-dollar television ministry of the Rev. Pete and the Mature Warriors for Christ and has the ear of no less than the U.S. president. The family members have long ago stopped speaking to one another, even though they're all in the same faith business. When they finally do, it's as if they're shocked to hear that the other party is even alive.
There's still a lot that can be made onstage about atomized families, and even the overly lampooned Christian fundamentalist movement, but "Virtual Devotion" tends to generate far more heat than light on the subjects. Talky to a fare-thee-well and thus too long by at least half an hour, the string of monologues and phone dialogues that make up a large portion of the play tend to repeat themselves. For example, Ruth's obsession with Ezekiel in her dessert plays funny for about a minute and then quickly loses gas. Anne's progress from mousy couch potato to assertive go-getter (in effect, reversing roles with her father, who gets the mystery plague) is unconvincing and takes too long to develop.
In the end, Coble's drama seems closer to the attitude of an apocalyptic semi-underground comic book than a story about flawed human beings, which can be terrific if the tone is maintained. But the writing tends to throw too much into the mix and some of it is nonsense. The fall of the Rev. Pete causes a run-up on the gold market, pulling the play back and forth between quasi-realism and absurdist black comedy.
What holds the attention are performance moments, as when Husmann passionately launches into one of the Rev. Pete's end-of-the-world sermons. "Virtual Devotion" gives more than virtual opportunities for the cast in this actor-friendly space, and that is something to hold onto.
"Virtual Devotion," El Portal Center for the Arts, Studio Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends April 14. $15. (818) 508-4200. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.