In line with the activism implied by their company name, The Civilians are at-the-ready with a new stage documentary, This Beautiful City, now making its New York premiere at the Vineyard Theatre. This piece, co-produced by Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group, arrives here after several years’ worth of preparation — carried out mostly in Colorado Springs, Colorado — in an effort to discover what make far-right-wing fundamentalists tick in a fundamentalist hotbed. While the company’s findings, presented here by way of both monologues (crafted by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis from actual interviews by the company) and Michael Friedman’s ditties, are definitely attention-grabbing, the news they’re reporting is a little late in the day.
True, some dramatic fuel is injected to the proceedings when the scandal about Ted Haggard — the charismatic Colorado Springs-based New Life pastor who confessed to accusations of homosexual activity and drug-purchasing chicanery after sex-partner Mike Jones spoke out publicly — actually breaks while The Civilians are going about their fact-gathering. And the company does make the most of how his revelations shocked those members of the agitated Colorado Springs community, who up to that point believed they had God’s light shining on them alone.
The Haggard bombshell also gives rise to what is the single most compelling testimony in This Beautiful City: a description by Haggard’s son Marcus of how he’s come to see his disgraced dad as more human and less distant. It’s delivered by Stephen Plunkett, one of the six-member cast who play multiple roles throughout the show.
Also brought for consideration before the Beautiful City audience is evidence that recognizes that not only is there continuing animosity towards evangelicals among the local non-believer, but that within the evangelicals themselves there are varying degrees of tolerance for each other and for their critics.
Under the consistently fluid direction of Cosson (aided by John Carrafa’s choreography), the cast — which also includes Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Heberlee, Alison Weller and Brandon Miller — have stepped forward with their impressive skills to present the kind of balanced view of a troubled population that Anna Deavere Smith established as a valid theatrical style with her seminal works.
Unfortunately, their work is somewhat undercut by Friedman’s songs, which are surprisingly generic; perhaps it’s because he’s been asked to musicalize material that’s quite similar to another of his recent projects, Saved. In any case, several of the dozen numbers seem to be nothing more than notes placed under transcribed statements, and the result sounds unduly forced.
Meanwhile, set designer Neil Patel presents Colorado Springs as a blocky gray unit suggesting fairly modern facades that lighting designer David Weiner occasionally transforms into even more abstract shapes with flashing colors.
This Beautiful City is ultimately a perfectly acceptable evening in the theater, but one hopes the ever-inquisitive troupe will soon serve up a better future documentary, one that could match their previous knockout hit, Gone Missing.