Saturday, July 2, 2016

God is the Unwelcome Guest in “Ultimate Things” 3.5 stars By Michele Markarian

“Ultimate Things”, written by Carl Danielson.  Directed by Carl Danielson and Amy Bennett-Zendzian.  Presented by Unreliable Narrator, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston through July 9.

“Which one of these guys is Carl Danielson?” I wondered as I scanned the audience at intermission of “Ultimate Things”, an evening of two one-acts, or in the words of Unreliable Narrator, “Comedies About Religion, Atheism, and the Stuff People Do With Both”.  I wanted to meet the man whose thoughts ran the gamut from Jesus to politics to guns to self-doubt to the anti-Christ and back again, in two short and often very funny pieces. 

In “Jesusness”, the world is disrupted when a man claiming to be Christ descends into Washington DC from a space pod and delivers a message of The Rapture on YouTube, as well as through all of the major news stations.  Despite witnessing Jesus turn water into wine, Peter (Nick Bennett-Zendzian), a devout Christian and principal of a Christian school, believes Jesus to be an imposter from outer space.  His wife Holly (Kitty Drexel) thinks otherwise, and when she takes a bus trip to Washington to see for herself, Peter, against his better judgment, has no choice but to follow her.  I won’t give away the ending, other than to say that Peter and Holly, against all odds, retain their Christian convictions.

The piece, directed by Danielson, has some very funny moments, with spot-on political commentary from Barack Obama – whom the Christians blame for everything – and Ted Cruz.  As Peter, Nick Bennett-Zendzian is terrific, giving an honest and nuanced performance as a man torn between his faith and his gut.  Cari Keebaugh plays military woman Beth with nice understatement.  Eva Bilick is appropriately uptight as Christian mom Scully, and patronizingly charming as the alien Krebthar.  Just when “Jesusness” starts to get exciting – “It’s a metaphor for the blindness of the Christian right!” I thought – it veers into silliness with a UFO theme that was lost, at least, on this reviewer.
“Hellancholy”, despite the considerable talents of its female lead, the engaging Caroline Keeler as mentally unstable TV producer Maggie, is less pointed, more amorphous, which after awhile gets tedious.  To counter writer’s block and impending depression, Maggie invites her childhood friend Sophie (Cari Keeburgh) to spend a month at her home in Los Angeles.  Maggie is responsible for creating an HBO show about a deviant priest, hilariously played by Nick Stevens.  As someone who has strayed from her faith, she is also haunted by God – literally, in the form of a white-robed man (Tom Russell).  Maggie does a lot of drugs, and as someone who managed to live through the 80s, I had problems with the verisimilitude of the coke scenes.  Not only is Maggie’s coke transported n a plastic baggie the size of four eight balls, it also manages to have a trippy effect on Sophie.  And when Maggie purchases another hefty lunch baggy – ingesting the first would have killed her – I was pretty incredulous.  By the time that Maggie almost writes to Sophie, “Never mix coke and alcohol” I had to wonder if I lived through the right decade.  Director Amy Bennett-Zendzian makes good use of the space, despite one too many set changes. 

“Hellencholy” has its moments – it touches upon issues of aging and appropriateness, and reserves of energy one no longer has.  And just when you think that you’ve had all you can take of the self-absorbed, unhappy Maggie, she looks at the audience and says, “And if you ask me, alive is always better than happy”.  I would have to agree.