This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.
The word - Scientology - is never uttered in Skylight Theater Company's production of "Disconnection." Instead, everyone keeps making reference to "the church" and "the Chairman" and "suppressive persons". Even if you've only driven past the Celebrity Center, you know this is a Scientology scandal play. The title, "Disconnection," comes from the Scientologist's version of excommunication and shunning that forces members to cut themselves off from folks the church deems bad apples, even if they're family.
As the play opens, our three main characters are sitting separately with headphones. They're listening to a lecture from the church's founder - "Oldman". (Note to self: beware of any play that begins with what feels like a ten minute voiceover.) The lecture, or sermon if you will, is a little tangled but it centers around an anecdote of a church follower who, through the power of the church, could finally walk outside and really know the sky was blue.
Turns out, this lecture was pivotal for all three characters - maybe even the moment the church got them. Over the course of the play's two acts and two hours, the narrative will jump between these three: we've got a father and daughter - seperated by a terrible accident and the church's policies - and an aging piano virtuoso who was pals with the founder back in the day.
The challenge with "Disconnection" is its dramatic engine is built around story rather than action. The characters are included as a means of getting the details out. Trouble is if you've followed any of the writing about Scientology - and who hasn't in LA - it's going to feel like old news. This isn't salacious Tom Cruise rumors, it's run of the mill religious overreach so you're never really shocked by the revelations. Couple that with the play's foregone conclusion that Scientology is an evil totalitarian regime and you begin to see the obstacle.
Playwright Allen Barton seems to sense that the play is out of balance and opens act two with a monologue from the founder "Oldman." The old man, isolated in the desert, rambles through a vaguely self-aware justification and mea culpa. His basic message - 'yeah, the church is screwed up but it's not my fault and hell, we were being attacked - what do you expect?'. Structurally, it's an echo of the play's opening voiceover - instead now we're the congregation, the audience.
The closest the play comes to finding itself is courtesy of actor Everette Wallin who plays "The Chairman" - a completely over-the-top dictator with a charismatic baritone and a mercurial temper. He's the religious leader from hell but he's so much fun to watch you forgive the dogmatic absurdity. For just a moment the play transcends its earnest tone and verges on farce . . . or satire. Maybe it's me, but laughter feels like the antidote to this kind of tyrrany. Sadly, "The Chairman" only makes an appearance in one scene.
If you're one of those people who can't get enough of the foibles of Scientology - go . . . just don't expect revelation.
“Disconnection“ plays at the Beverly Hills Playhouse through March 1st.
This is Anthony Byrnes Opening The Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.
Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with an intermission.
Photo Credit: Ed Krieger