This Beautiful City, Our Town, and Winter's Tale

Plays about place oddly displaced

Funny, to be watching plays fixated on places while real estate drags the world economy into a huge downward spiral. What do the evangelicals of Colorado Springs have in common with the sturdy Congregationalists of Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, and the shepherds of Shakespeare's Bohemia? Answer: These days, they're all probably paying off mortgages that cost more than their property's currently worth.

It makes you think the point of setting a play so emphatically in a specific place might be not what it seems, but the opposite—a way to stress that places themselves doesn't much matter. How people deal with each other is the real key. All else rests in the hands of a noncommittal, often malign, destiny. The eccentric who sent somebody in Our Town a letter with "The Universe" thoughtfully included in the address might be smarter than the rest of us all. Our visible locations, it seems, are not where our meaning resides.

Religion, of course, has always stressed that our earthly residences are strictly temporary. Only American evangelicals, with their strange blend of Calvinist smugness (taking earthly prosperity as proof of heavenly approval) and post–World War II can-do optimism, tend to blur Christianity's celestial city into the ones human developers build on tangible hilltops. Colorado Springs, Colorado, where every citizen's front door or office window gives a blissfully scenic view of nearby Pike's Peak, must be as celestial as human cities get. But, as its residents keep telling us, in the interviews conducted by the Civilians and winnowed down by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis for This Beautiful City (Vineyard Theatre), human fallibility has a way of mucking up even the loftiest scenery.

A curious haven: This Beautiful City
Carol Rosegg
A curious haven: This Beautiful City

Details

This Beautiful City
By the Civilians, songs by Michael Friedman
Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street, 866-811-4111

Our Town
By Thornton Wilder
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street, 212-868-4444

The Winter's Tale
By William Shakespeare
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718-636-4100

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The Civilians originally went to Colorado Springs to study its life as a haven for evangelicals and similar fundamentalist groups; destiny, which must have some interest in making sure theater stays dramatic, handed them a breaking news story around which to build their study: Pastor Ted Haggard, of the big, influential New Life Church. The exposure of Pastor Ted's clandestine life as an illegal drug purchaser and patron of a gay masseur/escort didn't prevent the passage of Colorado's anti-gay marriage amendment, but it did rattle Colorado Springs with shocks sufficient to turn This Beautiful City into a sort of tentative younger brother to Tectonic Theater's The Laramie Project.

Tectonic's troupe went to Laramie after the worldwide shock of Matthew Shepard's murder, looking for causes, responses, and possible paths to healing; the Civilians went to Colorado Springs looking for a reality to map, and found themselves with a story to tell instead. Unsurprisingly, they sometimes lose their way, letting Haggard's travails slip out of focus. Destiny provided them with several tidy additional advantages, including the not-quite-contrasting story of Ben Reynolds, the black evangelical pastor of a smaller church, who came out (voluntarily, not by exposure) around the same time Haggard was making headlines.

Still, the shift from panoramic survey to linear narrative makes This Beautiful City bumpier in structure and less certain in focus than it should be. Like many groups today, the Civilians get itchy about making narrative too tidy. So the show skitters through some digressive moments, particularly at the end where, after a piece that wraps up the narrative's ironies perfectly, it dwindles into anticlimax. Uncertainty, too, haunts Michael Friedman's lively songs, never quite sure whether they should be found objects that hymn Colorado's glories or a deadpan commentary on same. Friedman, a composer of considerable gifts, also sets some of the interview texts with high inventiveness, but turning evidence into song automatically tosses documentary integrity out the window.

And like this indeterminate use of song, the company's acting ability, though substantial, can only stretch so far, while the unsteadily shifting piece keeps trying to pull it further. Much of the staging (by Cosson, with choreography by John Carrafa) has ease, power, and clarity, making the slacker moments seem all the more a pity. A more purposive trip through, centered on the story rather than the place, could have made this intelligent, interesting piece a real gem.

Wilder's Our Town already is a gem, a work so ingrained in American culture that an experienced theatergoer can be shocked to discover lines in it that he doesn't know. David Cromer's cunningly un-cunning production administers many such salutary shocks, making the play's dark cosmic vision shine simply by draining away all its sentiments, including its fondness for bygone small-town New England folkways. Crammed into a tiny space at Barrow Street Theatre, this Grover's Corners has all the homey expansiveness of a rush-hour subway. Everybody's hurried, cranky, peremptory, and a tad scruffy. Everybody's also, quite deliberately, amateurish: Instead of the glossy, idealized Gibbses and Webbs whom standard productions lovingly display, this cast creates a batch of locals reluctantly shoved into their roles, with little notion of acting.

The trick starts to wear dangerously thin as the play's bigger acting tasks arise, but by then Cromer (who also plays the equally flat-spoken Stage Manager) has another wicked surprise for us, a rebuke to Wilder's faith in theatrical innocence that simultaneously reaffirms Our Town's point. Cromer's canniness won't be to everyone's taste, but it'll stick in your brain, and bring Wilder with it.

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