The houselights go down, and with a cue from the stage manager/God-figure we're off and romping through the wild gay garden of Paul Rudnick's The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. This is an Eden where Adam falls for Steve, Jane adores Mabel, and straight people (who don't appear for centuries) are kind of, well, icky.
Famous for his lacerating wit and dead-on comic timing, Rudnick (whose work includes Jeffrey and I Hate Hamlet) retells the Old Testament through gay eyes before leaping to modern-day New York, where his characters are still arguing over the likelihood of God, the meaning of paradise and, most important, our capacity for tolerating differences.
Joe Watts of Theatre New West brings this charming script to Houston with timing that couldn't be better. His production is the best dramatic bonbon of the holiday season -- thanks in no small part to his pretty and enthusiastic young cast, whose collective chemistry bubbles over with the indulgent joy that can make live theater so much fun.
Adam Clarke's tall, dark and hunky Adam is a politically incorrect stereotype, just the way Rudnick planned it. Dressed in nothing but a teeny white jockstrap, the just-made man stretches himself awake, stands up, innocently glances about, then finally coos, "This garden is fabulous." When macho Steve (Steve Bullitt) struts into Eden, Adam falls into lust. The men grope and suck face until the stage manager/God (Mary Hooper), who's still calling the cues, announces, "Boners. Go." The stage lights go black, but not for modesty's sake. In fact, at one point Adam and Steve go at it center stage in a blaze of white light. The simulated sex is feverishly funny, with saucer-eyed Adam as surprised by the act as anyone in the audience.
Adam and Steve are amusing, but it's Jane (Natalie Maisel) and Mabel (Jenny Yau) who steal the garden. "Who are these poor ugly women?" murmurs the incredulous Mabel when she first discovers the men. Yau is perfectly lovely as the airy earth-child who explains her female anatomy to the confused men this way: "We have vaginas. They are our friends." She's the kind of touchy-feely girl who keeps a journal and makes "tea from bark." Maisel's butch Jane, on the other hand, never thinks about such froufrou. She wouldn't even wear clothes if she didn't "need pockets."
The men and women come to accept each other's oddities and all is paradise in Paradise, until Adam (it was a man, after all!) decides he wants to know what it's like outside the garden. Though he's warned of the sorrow and pain to come, he can't resist. So into the worldly maelstrom the four must go. Along the way, they tour Sodom, invent the wheel, hang out with an ark full of randy animals (where they learn about infidelity), meet a queeny pharaoh who calls himself God and encounter a tour group of heterosexuals who inspire Mabel to want a baby. Rudnick balances his whimsical take on ancient history with questions about God and morality; and Watts's cast delivers the questions with a truthful sweetness that gives surprising depth to these funny scenes.
The second act opens on Adam and Steve's present-day New York City apartment, all done up in tinsel and colored lights for the holidays. Adam, who's Jewish, scoots about putting the final decorations on the tree before guests arrive for a "transholiday" bash. Steve, the apostate, broods as he watches his partner; he doesn't approve of Adam's need to find God.
Their eclectic guests are played by Watts's powerhouse of a supporting cast. Tanya Bryan plays Adam's Mormon co-worker Peggy, who believes in the power of angels. When curmudgeonly Trey (Taavi Mark) walks in, wearing full Santa regalia from his job at the mall, he curtly informs Peggy that "angels are just Prozac for poor people." A feather-brained go-go dancer named Kevin (Mick Petersen) shows up wearing nothing but his red velvet G-string and an elf hat. And a wheelchair-bound rabbi (Belinda Babinec) tells the hysterical story of her paralysis involving a delivery truck, an air-conditioning unit and a scone. But the biggest surprise comes from Mabel and Jane: It's Jane, the "bull dyke," who's pregnant. The only bright side she can see is that now she'll have someone "to send out for cigarettes."
Underpinning all the jokes are the questions Adam continues to posit about the existence of God and the meaning of life. Steve, who is HIV-positive, won't even discuss it. There is an Oprah-like let's-love-one-another vibe to the party, but Rudnick has the good sense to undermine his own feel-good moment when he puts Jane on stage in a spot of yellow light to curse her way through the birth of her child.
There is something undeniably traditional in this story: Family, rebirth, tolerance, all the conventional morals are here. But the strange characters, sexy bodies and terrific one-liners add enough spice to make the Most Fabulous Story much more than just another theatrical greeting card.
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