Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Skylight Theatre Company at the Beverly Hills Playhouse
Through March 1
The church referred to by playwright Allen Barton in his play is never identified, but the details of his story evoke the horror stories told by disillusioned former Scientologists: accounts of demands for total conformity, hefty financial contributions, total commitment, and a willingness to declare all-out war on any member who wants to leave the fold.
Wisely, Barton doesn’t show his hand immediately, taking a seemingly neutral approach. He begins his play with a recorded speech by the founder/leader of the Church, who proclaims the value of personal perception, without regard for preconceived notions or outside opinions. It seems eminently reasonable, and the logic is impeccable, leaving us to wonder if we’re seeing an exposé or a testimonial.
We’re then introduced to Landon (Jay Huguley, alternating with Bo Foxworth) who has come, on the advice of another Church member, to seek instruction from sly, wily, humorous piano teacher Michel (Dennis Nollette). We soon learn that Landon has been traumatized by an automobile accident in which his wife was killed — and which he admits was his own fault. And now his daughter Tess has retreated into the Church and refuses to have anything to do with him. In his despair, he has fallen back on his first love, the piano and, with Michel, he embarks on a rigorous course of instruction.
Next we meet Landon’s daughter Tess (Carter Scott) and her husband Nick (Luke Cook), who are both on the staff of the Church. But Tess has begun to be seriously disenchanted with the institution and its ways, and she is also pregnant. The Church opposes pregnancy and children as distractions from its own work. For Tess, however, the baby she is carrying is far more real and important than anything the Church can offer. Though she urges Nick to leave with her and to make a life outside, he’s too indoctrinated and wusses out. And now the Church has declared Landon to be a “suppressive” and therefore to be shunned, causing Michel to sever relations with him.
In Act 2, we’re given a curiously ambiguous portrait of the leader/founder of the Church, here referred to only as Oldman (Robert L. Hughes, in a splendidly laid back and seeming effortless performance). He’s still the leader of the Church, with access to its millions, but because of the many lawsuits pending against him, and the efforts of his enemies, he’s had to go into hiding, living in a trailer in a remote area — and he’s bored to death. Oldman is still convinced in the value of his original perceptions, that evil is an aberration, and the aberration will disappear if it’s examined systematically in the clear light of reason. But something has gone wrong, and the system has compromised his beliefs. He’s cut off — disconnected — from his church, and his only contact is with a fanatical young man, fiercely intelligent but devoid of wisdom, who wants to be declared Chairman of the Board. The portrait is oddly affectionate. No matter how fiercely Barton opposes the Church, he still feels a grudging affection for the leader. In the climactic scene, the young man, now the Chairman (Everette Wallin), confronts Tess for a final showdown.
Barton is a clever enough writer to keep his audience fiercely attentive, and prevent us from realizing till quite late, that the play is a covert diatribe against the Church. (Hell hath no fury like a ex-Scientologist!) And he’s fortunate in having a director, Joel Polis, who has cast actors fine enough to keep the characters human, without turning them into talking heads. Scott’s Tess is the play’s glowing conscience, and Huguley faithfully realizes an almost entirely reactive character. Nollette is so amiably shrewd in his early scenes that it’s hard to reconcile him with the helpless, ineffectual doctrinaire he later becomes. Hughes’ Oldman is a perfect gem of a performance, and Wallin’s Chairman is so wrong-headed and smug, one wants to throttle him.
Jeff McLaughlin provides the handsome, semi-abstract set, and writer Barton performs the piano music.
Note: See our feature interview with playwright Allen Barton
Skylight Theatre Company at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills; Fri., 8:30 p.m.; Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. (no perfs Feb. 1 & 22); through March 1. (213) 761-7061, http://skylighttix.com.