"Holy Laughter" a long way from being ready for primetime
PITTSFIELD >> Abigail, the thirtysomething Episcopal priest at the center of Catherine Treischmann's new play, "Holy Laughter," is a young woman in search of herself.
She is emblematic the play itself, a work that is very much in search of itself in a valiantly acted and mounted developmental workshop presentation by WAM Theatre at the St. Germain Stage in Barrington Stage Company's Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center.
Somewhat adrift after graduating college with as double major in anthropology and religion, Abigail (played with determined effort by Amie Lytle) was waiting tables in Brooklyn and enjoying sex with her lover in his apartment near the Brooklyn Bridge when an incident between a nun and a homeless man at a Sisters of Mercy neighborhood rec center and food bank where Abigail was volunteering, changed her life.
"I don't know how to explain it," she says to a would-be parishioner, "but it was like peace invaded the room. We all felt it. The presence of God. I don't know what else to call it."
It was not until years after that incident, Abigail says, that she discovered the Episcopal Church and applied to seminary. "But on the floor of that rec center, that's where I was marked."
But good intentions and spiritual epiphany are not enough as Abigail is finding out in her first posting — St. Michael's Church, a building and parish that clearly have seen better times. It's not only that the building is falling apart or that the church. which can't afford to repair or replace its aging boiler, is running out of money as quickly as it is running out of parishioners.
From a financial standpoint, St. Michael's salvation is its much-prized organ, a potential cash cow if it were put up for sale; given to St. Michael's and dedicated to the church by a man named Lloyd (Ron Komora in one of the production's few fully realized performances), a curmudgeonly seventysomething parishioner and vestry member who is stubbornly resistent to change and is dealing in his personal life with a wife who is in the last stages of Alzheimer's.
St. Michael's also is facing stiff competition from a rapidly growing neighboring church run by an opportunistic, assertive black pastor named Vivienne, played by Kimberlee Monroe — when she is not channeled into facile, cartoonish excess — with tough, formidable self-assurance, bullying sarcasm and a cynical, if also realistic, view of the way the congregation-building and sustaining world operates. She also covets St. Michael's organ
Abigail's aim, she suggests in her first sermon, is to build community but her own parishioners are problematic. In addition to Lloyd, there is Noah (Benjamin Zoëy), a well-intentioned amateur dancer-choreographer who is at a crossroad in terms of defining his sexuality; Esther (Dana harrison), the quintessential do-gooder volunteer who gets more than she bargains for when she becomes involved with five Burmese refugees; Martine (Monroe), a pleasant, naive Haitian woman who keeps pressing Abigail to take up one collection after another for her nephew in Haiti whose efforts to support Martine's sister and family keep running into one mishap after another; and Myra (Harrison), a hairdresser and would-be parishioner whom Abigail suspects might be in an abusive relationship with her husband.
Abigail finds relief at home doing yoga, smoking a little pot, reciting off-color limericks (one about a man from Kent is absolutely priceless). She guests guidance and good counsel from her mentor and supervisor, Victor (Komora again in another beautifully crafted performance), the area bishop who, with a little help of some scotch, gives Abigail the wisdom of his experience.
But for all that Treischmann packs into "Holy Laughter" (the title feels as if it belongs to another entirely different play), she has yet to find a cohesive thread. A series of sight gags — rubber fish, a rubber octopus and eventually a series of pregnancy test kits that are dropped on Abigail from above — runs out of steam and grows tiresome quickly.
Abigail's pregnancy — the result of a one-night stand with a young man named Sam (Zoëy) whom she meets at a club — is a far-too-easy and wearisome cliche. Treischmann is fond of leading us down paths that wind up leading nowhere. Abigail seems as ill-suited to her supposed calling at the end of the play as she is at the beginning. Nothing, with the exception of the future of the St. Michael's organ, gets resolved but that doesn't matter. Everyone winds up in the end sharing a kumbaya moment in a dance created by Noah that is meant to demonstrate that, in the end, we are all God's children, all one no matter what idiosyncracies divide and define us, It sure feels good in a retro sort of way.
It's all little more than thinking out loud; the playwright throwing a lot of plot and stylistic ideas onto the wall to see what will stick but, despite some flashes of good writing, very little does. There's nothing cohesive here; nothing but an underlying feeling that Treischmann hasn't quite figured out what she wants "Holy Laughter" to be about, what she wants to say and how she wants to say it. Until she does, this draggy two-hour two-act play is a long way from being ready for primetime.
What: "Holy Laughter" by Catherine Treischmann. Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian; choreography by Kimberley Ciola; music director, Robin Kibler
With: Amie Lytle, Dana Harrison, Ron Komora, Kimberlee Monroe, Benjamin Zoëy
Designers: Juliana Von Haubrich, scenic; Lauren Gaston, costume; David Roy, lighting; Brad Berridge, sound
Who: WAM Theatre
When: Through Nov. 22. Evenings — Thursday through Saturday at 7:30. Matinees — Sunday at 2
Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes
Where: Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, St. Germain Stage, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield
How: (413) 236-8888; WAMTheatre.com