'Beyond Belief' is a poignant, playful mix of sex and religion
By Ellen Pfeifer, Globe Correspondent, 1/7/2003
Walking into the Lyric Stage theater these days, an audience member is sweetly seduced by the piped-in voice of Bing Crosby gliding through the pitches of ''Swing on a Star'' or ''Pistol-Packin' Mama.'' Even before the show begins, the great crooner transports the listener back to a more innocent era when love, sex, and religion were a lot simpler and a lot more complexly incendiary.
It is this era - say, 40 to 50 years ago - that shaped the morals, the expectations, the naivete of the three elderly Catholic women who are the anchoring characters of Jack Neary's ''Beyond Belief or Catholics Are People Too.'' The world premiere of the evening-length suite of six playlets opened this weekend at the Lyric Stage with Neary directing the production.
Unsettlingly disjunct, alternately hilarious, preposterous, and tragic, the show began as a single brief sketch written for the inaugural Boston Theater Marathon of 10-minute plays in 1999. That playlet was so successful that Neary was encouraged to write another for the 2000 marathon. Eventually, he wrote four pieces in which the three porch-sitting seniors confront the realities of sex at the turn of the millennium. To these, he added two much weaker pieces that involve different characters and situations still wedded to the theme of ''Sex and Catholics'' (which was the show's original title).
With three outstanding actresses in the roles of Gert, Alma, and Marjorie, Neary's clever dialogue and skewed wit pack the maximum punch. In each of their playlets, the ladies take on such incomprehensible (to them) subjects as oral sex, homosexuality, menages a trois, and the scandal of sexual abuse by priests. Bobbie Steinbach, as Gert, is the most worldly of the three, and she particularly relishes shocking her friends. When Cheryl McMahon, as Marjorie, declines to explain to Alma the logistics of sex for three, Steinbach's Gert gets a wicked gleam in her eye and a little malicious smile on her face. ''I'll tell,'' she says.
If the raspy-voiced Steinbach gets some of the juiciest lines and biggest laughs, Ellen Colton's sweetly dithery Alma cracks up the audience with her Alzheimer's-induced malapropisms (she thinks homosexuals are ''homeless sexuals,'' and lesbians a theater group). But Alma also breaks everyone's heart when, in the final playlet, she recounts in excruciating detail her personal bereavement as the result of a priest's sexual transgressions. Coming at the end of a show that has heretofore been funny to the point of silliness, this vignette and Colton's haunting performance take the breath away.
The other playlets never achieve the same level of wit or poignancy. ''Catholic Man'' finds protagonist Paul (Christopher Loftus) hypnotically induced to believe he is a religious superhero (the ''Lion of Lent,'' the ''Keeper of Christmas,'' humble, enduring, and celibate) and what happens when he encounters a nubile young woman, Francie (Lindsay Joy). In ''Santa's Holiday Confession,'' a priest (Loftus) confronts a most improbable couple of sinners - Santa Claus (Robert Saoud) and Natalie (Joy), the ''mouth-watering mother'' and oatmeal-cookie baker with whom the ''jolly old elf'' has dallied while delivering the Christmas toys. These scenes, plus a musical interlude for Saoud (a not-so-funny reworking of the old novelty song about how love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage), seem like filler. Perhaps Neary should craft a few more porch scenes for the three ladies - certainly there is plenty of sexual absurdity out there to keep the trio baffled to the end of their days.
Beyond Belief or Catholics Are People Too
Written and directed by Jack Neary
A production of the Lyric Stage Company of Boston
Sets, Janie E. Howland. Lights, Christopher Ostrom; Costumes, Gail Astrid Buckley
At: the Lyric Stage, 140 Clarendon St., Boston through Feb. 1.
Tickets: 617-437-7172 or at www.lyricstage.com
This story ran on page E4 of the Boston Globe on 1/7/2003.
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