By Manning Harris
Out Front Theatre is presenting Paul Rudnick’s “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,” directed by Paul Conroy, running through May 14.
It’s not every Atlanta show that gets coverage in The New York Times before it even opens, but that’s what happened here: “An Atlanta Theater Faces Criticism for Gay Versions of Bible Stories” was the title of the April 17 article in the Times. It seems an out-of-town conservative group started circulating petitions that got thousands of signatures. Out Front has received a barrage of emails and phone calls.
There’s a wry, old showbiz maxim that says “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” And that’s proven true with “Fabulous Story”: Its opening night was a sellout, and if you have an interest in seeing it, I’d get tickets fast.
But there’s no attempt to proselytize, subvert, convert, or blaspheme. Yes, there is some strong language and a bit of nudity. If that offends you, don’t go.
I found it a whimsical, provocative, delightful metaphysical comedy. Rudnick is the author of the 1993 gay comedy called “Jeffrey,” which had a long Off Broadway run; Actor’s Express performed it in 1995. In it, a character named Father Dan said, “There is only one real blasphemy—the refusal of joy.” This sentiment is echoed in “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told.”
Out Front has a statement of purpose that says the company “was established to tell stories of the LGBT experience and community.” The company is rapidly gaining strength and depth; last fall’s “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” was a lot of fun, but the script and acting in “The Most Fabulous Story” has taken a quantum leap, which I find very exciting.
The take-off point of the play is the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. Some time ago, when gay marriage was being debated everywhere, a conservative minister said, “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
Playwright Rudnick, one of the wittiest writers around, decided to take up the challenge, as it were: The show begins in the Garden of Eden with, you guessed it, Adam and Steve (Ty Autry and Brian Jordan). Both of these actors have enormous charm and are huge assets to the evening.
The show actually starts with the Stage Manager, headset and prompt book in tow, saying “House to half, go. House out and pre-set, go. Creation of the world, go.” She’s either God or thinks she is. Is that blasphemous? I don’t think so. Whimsical and arresting, yes.
Before long Jane (Ellie Styron) and Mabel (Jenni McCarthy), both lesbians, show up. They seem to think they were there first; thus the battle of the sexes begins, in a quaint, amusing way. Ms. Styron and Ms. McCarthy are excellent and get even stronger and more complex as the play continues.
This quartet survives for centuries; they spend time on the Ark and in bondage in Egypt (ruled by an extremely flamboyant Pharaoh). They are joined by a fascinating group of humans played by Actors 1, 2, 3, and 4 (Jess McGuire, Alex Burcar, Davin Grindstaff, and Rachel Garbus), all of whom play multiple roles, very well indeed. The first act ends with an unconventional Nativity scene.
All through the play, Rudnick slyly infuses his work with spiritual questions, such as who are we, why are we here, why is there infidelity, what’s the meaning of life—you know, the usual suspects. He brings a gentle, almost reverential tone to the piece that his (at times) outrageous comedy cannot hide.
As good as Act I is, Act II soon surpasses it in powerhouse comedy and a quite gripping view of life and love in—wait for it—modern day Manhattan. All of a sudden Jane (the most masculine of the original four) is pregnant, and Mabel has brought in a wheelchair-bound lesbian rabbi to marry the women. Steve is HIV positive; and that’s all the plot you get.
The level of acting Director Conroy gets from this cast is remarkable, and by the end lifts the audience out of their seats. There is an esprit de corps (I don’t know what else to call it) in this cast that is quite palpable and totally engaging.
The only thing I find mildly annoying is that I can’t give “Actors 1, 2, 3, 4” the individual credit I’d like because the program does not list the specific characters they play; and I don’t know their names yet. But their photos hang in the foyer (not the program), and you can make the happy discovery yourself.
I think the pre-show controversy is quite unwarranted in this post-truth world; actor Rachel Garbus says she “believes in the mission of making life more fabulous.” So does the playwright. If that’s blasphemy, bring it on.
For tickets and information, visit outfronttheatre.com.