I’ve not seen many plays that polarize audiences the way This Beautiful City does. Me, I walked out of the Studio Theatre in a bit of a haze, tangled up in thoughts about parallels between my life and those of the evangelically inclined Coloradans I’d just seen depicted. A friend whose taste and judgment I generally admire stalked out, so angry I’d call him incoherent—except for the perfectly rational arguments he mustered in his blistering denunciations of the show, its subjects, and what he saw as the appalling condescension and ineptitude of the liberal New Yorkers who’d created it.
Religion and politics, front and center at the shared virtual dinner table that is the stage: Go figure.
Things start off well enough, with a quick introduction to the denizens of Colorado Springs—the “Vatican of the evangelical right,” we keep hearing—to the strains of a country trio, which morphs into a kind of cowboy patter song, which becomes a bona fide production number about listening to the voice of the Lord.
Oh, I didn’t mention it’s a musical?
That’s what the Civilians do, it turns out: Not content with straight-ahead docu-theater (à la Anna Deavere Smith and her spiritual heirs in the Tectonic Theatre Project), the members of the 7-year-old troupe distill their site visits and their interviews and their research into a kind of anthropological cabaret. I’m not sure whether it was the vaguely antiseptic feel of the anthropology or the admittedly underwhelming musicianship involved in the cabaret that so offended my friend, but it is an uneasy mix.
And yet they’re on to something, the Civilians. The show’s overlong, yes: No anthropological cabaret—even one starring disgraced megachurch leader Ted Haggard and a gaggle of demon-fighting “spiritual warriors” who seem a little fringy even by the standards of the Springs—needs to hold the stage for two-and-a-half hours.
And it does occasionally seem to tilt in the look-at-these-oddballs direction, despite what’s clearly been a conscientious effort at an evenhanded approach: A God-fearing transgender woman, a black gay minister who’s been run out of the Springs, and sundry young lefties who bemoan their city’s state appear alongside a squadron of Air Force Academy cadets, a hipster youth minister in a hoodie-hybrid sports coat, and Haggard’s wounded wife, among others.
But at its heart, this show understands one thing, a notion made clear in both scenes and song lyrics voiced by people—and let’s remember that they are people—on both sides of what does at least feel like a conversation rather than a shouting match.
That’s the idea that while Colorado fundamentalists and alienated urbanites may come up with different strategies for getting through their days—a reliance on spirituality and a surrender to the Divine for the one, a dogged faith in rationality and an occasional assist from psychoanalysis for the other, say—what they have in common is the struggle to make sense of a big, unpredictable, often frightening world.
Whatever its excesses, whatever its failings, This Beautiful City frames nicely that one open-hearted understanding: that whether it’s in New York, under the shadow that’s still not cast by those missing towers, or in Colorado Springs, amid the swirl of scandal, we all feel a little lost on our worst days. And just maybe, the play suggests, knowing that about one another is how we start understanding one another again.