Perhaps the most shocking thing about The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told is that there’s so little that’s shocking or objectionable in it. The charming little trifle of a comedy is currently getting a strong production from Atlanta’s new Out Front Theatre. Even before opening night, however, the show became the subject of ludicrously misguided social media campaigns and protests, mostly orchestrated by the Pennsylvania-based Catholic group America Needs Fatima.
The dust-up seems especially odd because watching the show — which clearly none of the protesters have ever done — reveals a pretty straightforward and harmless comedic reimagining of Biblical stories, far less intentionally provocative than, say, Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, and more along the lines of Mel Brooks or Carol Burnett skits. Adam and Eve become Adam and Steve (an imaginative construction which was, it’s strange to note, originally proffered by religious conservatives objecting to homosexuality. Playwright Paul Rudnick simply fills in details about characters who were actually created by those who are now objecting).
The show does create its humor by putting characters with modern sensibilities and contemporary plainspokenness about sexual matters into Biblical settings, but I think there’s been a cartoon like this in the New Yorker just about every week since the very first issue. Even stranger is the fact that the play premiered in New York without incident way back in 1998; it’s received countless productions around the country in the past 20 years (including a previous Atlanta one). Apparently, this latest show at Out Front was just a step too far?
Anyway, the whole issue has a strange throwback quality to it, harking back to the culture wars of the ’80s and ’90s. Perhaps the group is feeling emboldened by recent political changes. Whatever the motivation for the protests, Out Front admirably chose to move forward with plans to present the comedy. What a pointless headache for the new theater company; the controversy has resulted in wasted time, energy, stress and financial resources for additional security. If there’s an Atlanta arts organization that needs and deserves community support right now, it’s Out Front.
That aside, we know that religious fundamentalists aren’t especially pleased, but now that it’s on stage, it’s fair to ask: is The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told truly all that fabulous?
Rudnick is a skilled writer in that he’s able to milk a lot of genuine laughs out of the pretty predictable set-up of applying a modern gay sensibility (some would say modern gay cliches) to familiar, iconic tales. The first act of the comedy, which traces the lives of Adam and Steve across the incidents of a reimagined Old Testament, has an appealingly jaunty, picaresque quality to its reframing of Biblical stories, while the second act uses the same actors to explore religious themes through gay characters at a contemporary party in modern-day New York.
Ty Autry and Brian Jordan are cute and likeable as Adam and Steve, with Autry giving a great, innocent, searching quality to the character. Ellie Stryon and Jenni McCarthy are hilarious as the first (and hopelessly mismatched) lesbian couple, the plainspoken, practical Jane and the gentle, but dippy, new age-y Mabel. A cast of four actors rotate through the many supporting roles, creating a lot of funny moments, the best of them provided by Davin Grindstaff as a wise-cracking, bitter Santa at Act II’s holiday party.
Both of the very different halves of the play succeed in different ways, and the whole thing takes off with more success (you can measure this pretty easily by audience laughter) than any Atlanta comedy in recent memory. At more than two-and-a-half hours, however, the light-as-air, see-it-and-forget-it show is too long for its purposes, and the vague stab at profundity (to believe or not to believe, that is the question confounding the central characters) has a tacked-on, juvenile quality to it. The work is more successful as a series of surreal skits that playfully toy with the big questions than it is as a unified meditation on some ostensibly profound religious matter.
It’s certainly not the most offensive story ever told, and probably not the most fabulous one either, but in the end, Out Front’s production nonetheless still manages to get Rudnick’s sense of giddy, playful silliness just right.