This Beautiful City
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
February 20, 2009
Is it because I've been living in Manhattan for the past 14 years and have lost touch with the rest of America? Is it because I've witnessed my impoverished relatives in rural Missouri self-defeatingly vote "on the side of God" in the past three elections and have ceased seeing them as rational human beings? Is it because I've watched too many probing documentaries on various evangelical and survivalist Christian sects and have already processed my anger at and empathy with these damaged dubious do-gooders?
I would like to give The Civilians the benefit of the doubt—if there is a doubt—regarding the jarring lack of relevance I found in their new company creation, This Beautiful City, currently being performed at the Vineyard Theatre by a very good ensemble of actors on an imaginative set by Neil Patel, augmented by excellent projection design by Jason H. Thompson. My television hasn't worked for years, so I'm sure you will understand me when I say that I'm shocked by the kind of theatre that lulls me into an anesthetized state of bland head-noddery. But this quasi-musical docudrama about the citizens of Colorado Springs and their passionate faith or furious faithlessness in the evangelical movement is provocative to me solely in the sense that it did not provoke me in the least and I think it should've.
I have two fundamental problems with This Beautiful City: form and content. The Civilians were interviewing members of the New Life Church when its pastor Ted Haggard was exposed as a closeted male-hooker-enjoyer and crystal-meth-enthusiast. Writers Steven Cosson (who also directed the piece) and Jim Lewis pieced together these conversations; composer-lyricist Michael Friedman set some of them to music and wrote other Christian rock pastiches; and the above mentioned ensemble portrays a hodgepodge of characters with humor and precision. Cosson stages these interviews using all the tricks in the book most theatre-makers and –goers bought at the Strand a couple of decades ago. He places them next to one another, cutting back and forth between opposing points of view; he parses them out episodically; and he interweaves Friedman's songs, most of them grating and repetitive in their determination to honor the words of these interviewees by not making proper lyrics out of their not-all-that-illuminating ramblings.
So what am I expecting, the Civilians to revolutionize the form of documentary theatre? It'd be nice and perhaps that was their intention. But it is almost impossible to do when such a company seems so overimpressed with the fortunate coincidence of the Haggard scandal breaking in the very midst of their fieldwork that they have overlooked the not-deep-enough-penetration of their own material. Their friendliness towards all of their subjects is commendable from a humanistic perspective, but it actively impedes an already precariously dramatic form, and the sometimes touching stories they have culled are far from anything I have not heard a hundred times before. Friedman fares a bit better with the Christian rock anthems, composed in an appropriately lowest-common-denominator fashion, but they still do not interest me beyond their easy parodic bull's-eyes.
Perhaps my pronounced dissatisfaction is simply a case of form imitating content. The all-inclusive language, both spoken and musical, that is essential to creating and maintaining a politically powerful and far-reaching religion, is very very very difficult to make compelling in a medium such as theatre where universality is achieved not by consistent vagueness but daring specificity. I'll emphasize again that This Beautiful City includes highly nuanced performances—I was particularly moved by Emily Ackerman's mercilessly marginalized transsexual (or T-Girl) and Brandon Miller's mad-as-hell Military Religious Freedom Activist. That I am not going into further detail about the cast says nothing about their appeal; only that they cannot squeeze blood from the transcripts of an over-investigated, if under-explored, American phenomenon.