The best thing going in Theater LaB Houston's premiere of Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends (A Final Evening with the Illuminati) is Dean Turner, the comic half of this two-actor putdown of organized religion.
The play, by Atlanta writers Levi Lee and Larry Larson, requires a traditional combination of funny guy and straight man... a Laurel and Hardy, say. Turner is the Stan Laurel here, and he plays Brother Lawrence, Illuminati's pathetic Everyman, with earnest glee. Scrunching one skinny shoulder up and dragging one crippled leg across the floor, he serves as the lame comic foil to the Reverend Eddie, a self-important cleric and straight man who hears voices, has visions and, at one point in the performance, flagellates himself using a Rube Goldberg device made from a bicycle.
Some of the funniest bits seem to have come from the Marty Feldman-Gene Wilder relationship in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. Turner listens to Reverend Eddie's lectures with a manic attention worthy of Feldman's Igor. Other influences might well be Kinky Friedman (for a country-and-western song titled, "Jesus was a Lutheran"), Waiting for Godot (for bathos) and Monty Python (for sheer silliness).
In one of the Reverend Eddie's nightmares (or is it Brother Lawrence's vision?), a man applies to an officious clerk for sainthood. The applicant, he's told, must choose his method of martyrdom. He passes over being torn apart by wild animals (allergic to fur) and being crucified (doesn't want to be a copycat). "No," the applicant says, "I was really thinking of something a little more ... modern, eh? Like a couple of cases of beer and some Quaaludes."
"No," the clerk responds, "if that worked, Marilyn Monroe would be a saint."
The play seldom probes deeper than this for its satire. St. Paul and St. Timothy are depicted as a couple of lunch-box-toting hard-hats concerned with putting down women. And the Reverend Eddie's penultimate sermon compares life to a basketball game.
The earnest core of the play works on the tension between Lawrence's humility and Eddie's self-importance. Lawrence has a vision of God as a "space lady" in a silver lam jumpsuit who comes down in a flying saucer and heals his limp.
"Don't you see what that means, Lawrence?" responds the Reverend Eddie. "You're not important enough for the devil to fool with! You're laity! Lay people don't have visions. Don't you see? He's trying to get to me through you! Through visions, and holding out this foolish hope of being healed."
Eddie later explains to Lawrence that he flagellates himself in order to be holy. Contemplating that, Lawrence suggests that he, too, must be holy because he hurts all the time. Not so fast, says Eddie.
"You see," he explains, "you're not holy. You're just in pain. I make pain, you are pain. I am a doer, you are a be-er. I am on the team. You're on the bench."
Colin McLetchie plays the Reverend Eddie with a stentorian emphasis that seems unnecessary in Theater LaB's intimate theater. Since no audience member is more than three rows from the action, the actors could be more subtle and expressive than they are. Despite his crippling sense of self-importance, Eddie ought to be more sympathetic and less one-dimensional than McLetchie makes him.
Director Ed Muth might also have toned down the makeup. Eddie is supposed to be an older, dissipated man, so the young McLetchie conspicuously grays his hair and draws eye pouches on his unwrinkled face that are worthy of a Wortham Center opera singer aiming to be seen from the highest balcony. Why not just play Reverend Eddie younger? It would be less distracting. Similarly, Turner smears his face with soot to simulate dirt, I suppose, but his hair is as clean and shiny as the Breck Girl's.
These blemishes aside, Muth has directed Illuminati with energy and zeal. McLetchie and Turner romp through their roles, and every corner of the crackerbox building is used effectively. And while the playwrights go for laughs so eclectically that Illuminati can hardly be called coherent, they do manage to tie their pieces together neatly enough.
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The Illuminati of the play's title are a secret society of Christian mystics formed in 18th-century Bavaria. In the Reverend Eddie's version of history, they set themselves apart as spiritually superior beings who deserve to rule the world, and who are still trying to do just that. Eddie's obsession with them and with his own spiritual value ultimately destroys him, of course, and leads to Lawrence delivering what might be called the authors' vision of liberal humanism: don't lie, do what you like and don't destroy yourself with self-importance.
During one of his frequent catechisms of Lawrence, the Reverend Eddie asks him if he knows who Saint Genesius was. The patron saint of actors, says Lawrence, who was stoned to death by an angry audience for performing a sacrilegious play. Theater LaB might have hoped that this would be just one of those plays. But in an age in which so-called holy men condemn writers to death, Illuminati contains little that seems particularly mean-spirited or stoning-worthy. Except, maybe, for a gratuitous comparison of the pope to Hitler: they both got to wear uniforms and funny little hats.
Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends (A Final Evening with
the Illuminati) plays through September 24 at Theater LaB Houston,
706 Alamo, 868-7516.