There’s a moment in Paul Rudnick’s “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,” after the gay Adam and Steve make love in the Garden of Eden, that a priest seated in the theater storms the room to damn the couple to tarnation.
If you’ve followed the controversy over Out Front Theatre’s decision to stage Rudnick’s ludicrous 1998 rewrite of the Old Testament and beyond, you may be possessed of a certain feeling of deja vu.
The idea of “art imitating life” (or vice versa) has rarely felt more apt than with this scripted scene of the heckling priest. It’s the moment the crucifix drops, if you’ll forgive the image: The instance where you find yourself wondering for a second if a protester has in fact infiltrated the building to join the chorus of voices protesting the bawdy rewrite of the tale of Adam and Eve, the birth of Christ (to a lesbian Virgin), and the resurrection of the story in modern-day Manhattan, where the same timeless issues of love and meaning don gay apparel.
If you are just tuning in to the controversy, here’s a quick summary: In recent weeks, the conservative Catholic group America Needs Fatima has collected more than 53,000 virtual signatures calling for the cancellation of Rudnick’s satire, while Out Front founder Paul Conroy has tens of received thousands of negative emails and phone calls. He’s had to hire security to keep an eye on the building and, after the hoopla received national and international coverage, beef up his PR response team.
My critique of this production may be mixed. But my response to Out Front’s bravery, and Conroy’s impassioned curtain speech about the importance of the First Amendment, is unequivocal.
Free speech. Now and forevermore. World without end. (Or least as long as the U.S. Constitution is in place. And as long as hatred, bigotry and religious extremism run amok in our fraught republic.)
End of sermon.
And now, on with the show: Under Conroy’s direction, Adam (Ty Autry) and Steve (Brian Jordan) are delightful and fun to watch. They play the Old Testament-inspired characters like the kind of fresh-faced kids you’d expect to meet at Atlanta gay bars Blake’s on the Park or Burkhart’s. For the record, they get completely naked, and seem to enjoy it, indulging in the moment with equal parts gaiety and irreverence.
Soon, however, our Edenic love birds are interrupted by the lesbian couple Jane (Ellie Styron) and Mabel (Jenni McCarthy), who also claim to be Earth’s original inhabitants. While the men are played like ordinary gays-next-door, the women come across as angry crones out of a science-fiction flick from the era of Agnes Moorehead and June Lockhart. As such, the tone of the story feels confused, and though there are funny bits here and there, the show never quite finds its footing.
Among the supporting players, Davin Grindstaff (who plays that priest) is hilarious as the sour Santa who arrives at Adam and Steve’s Act 2 Christmas party. Unsuccessful at his job as St. Nick, the character is brilliant as a social critic, dismissing everything in his wake in dulcet tones, and with all bite of Wilde and Sedaris.
Jane’s new wig gives her the pixie-ish demeanor of the young Carson McCullers. (Or maybe it’s a snarky Ellen DeGeneres?) But the best part of this Christmas party from hell may be the disabled Jewish lesbian rabbi, played with gusto on the day I caught the play by understudy Kait Rivas. (Though Alex Burcar imbues a number of fey roles with stereotypical swish, he’s better when he breaks type — for instance as the horny rhino who captures Steve’s eye during the Noah’s Ark sequence.)
Excepting the good number of bad wigs, the show is nicely designed by Jay Reynolds (costumes), Austin Kunis (sets and props), and Charles Swift (lighting). And while the intentions of Out Front are both noble and welcome, none of that can transcend the fact that the material really isn’t all that fabulous at all.
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