Drew Gray is establishing himself quickly as a local playwright of note, and it’s partly because he’s got an able crew of colleagues at New Haven Theater Company to help put his scripts on their feet.
Gray’s got both a funny side and a deep dark side. He seems fascinated with the mechanics of illusions. His two-and-a-half person drama The Magician, which NHTC presented last year, was a behind-the-scenes look at the day-to-day dreariness of a low-level professional prestidigitator. The Cult, which NHTC is presenting through Saturday at English Market Building on Chapel Street, is about the difficulty of balancing work, romance, family issues and other pursuits—with one of those pursuits involves leading a spiritual cult.
There’s an old-fashioned playfulness to The Cult, at least for its lighter first act. It’s mainly an apartment play, like classic ‘60s Neil Simon, with a few excursions to offices and outdoors. Characters banter amiably, then caught in complicated relationships that have to do with their deepest desires and uncomfortable admissions. There’s also something quaint about the presentation of a religious cult as what we used to call “lovable crazies,” and not as suicidal zombies or gun-stashing terrorists (though some examples of that type of cult are indeed mentioned.)
Useful theatrical conventions and stereotypes aside, Gray wants to show a realistic, nuts-and-bolts view of what it’s like to build, fund and grow a cult. It looks remarkedly like one of those sitcoms about quirky friends constantly hanging out together and sharing special bonding moments. There are good lines about the logistics of having folks over to you apartment all the time to worship an alien deity: “Enjoy the love of each other until about 8:15 or so.” Love is the group’s message. It’s hard to argue with that, so as an audience member you learn to accept their cultiness, even if some of the characters’ family members and coworkers obviously can’t.
The Cult is about acceptance and social values and paranoia and intolerance—all the things you’d want a play called The Cult to be about. But it’s also about real estate transactions and maintaining a meeting calendar and remembering to bring one’s bright flowing purple robes to those meetings. It’s about the details, which leads naturally to the details of the people’s lives which brought them to the cult in the first place. (Convincingly, the cult members don’t care to be branded a cult, but Gray has made sure that this gathering fits the standard definition of cult, so its principles can be studied on those terms.)
Those details add up to greater stories, with their own complications. Gray gives himself way too many subplots to resolve post-intermission, leading to several confrontational scenes in a row and little of the lighthearted comedy of the first half. It’s not uninteresting, just imbalanced and unnecessarily long. But that’s entirely why it’s great that this play is being produced: to see what works and what doesn’t. So much of the first half is so solid, it’s fascinating to see the playwright attempt to wrap it all up neatly.
The Wednesday night audience was on the small side (as all Wednesday night audiences are anywhere), and it’s hard to rouse audible laughs without a larger crowd. But the laughs—and the heartwarming “awww….” moments and the gasps of surprise are definitely plentiful in this confidently written script. The cast, made up of NHTC company members Christian Shaboo, J. Kevin Smith, Erich Greene, Kately Marie Marshall, Deena Nicol-Blifford, Mallory Pellegrino and Trevor Williams, plus new (or newish) recruits Rick Beebe, Sandra Rodriguez, Tim Smith and Lauren Young. Yes, that is a large cast, but this is local small theater, where you can have as many people onstage as you have friends in the theater community.
Gray, who has directed his own script here (as well as co-producing, set-designing, and composing the musical score), has set up a balanced universe: the harried, humane leader; his overbearing family; the warmhearted, industrious female friend; the romantic interest at the office; the comically insecure office supervisor; the loud, insensitive guy; the vulnerable guy having a health crisis; the upbeat one sharing his enthusiasm; and various intermediaries, helpers, ex-girlfriends and hangers-on. When the NHTC company members don’t fit the roles exactly, it’s still easy to imagine what Gray was going for. Young is a stand-out as a ditzy young cult member, constantly in character and adding some fun sight-gags and gestures to her dialogue. J. Kevin Smith as a new member of the cult is deftly able to travel the script’s difficult path from comedy to pathos to near-tragedy. And Christian Shaboo, one of NHTC’s default leading men for the last couple of seasons (George in Our Town, Louis in Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked), is in just about every scene of the play, holding it all together as Tyler, a basically decent guy who spreads the teachings he divined from supernatural communications with a greater being known as Aldean.
The Cult is overstuffed with dramatic plot twists and payoffs. There are a lot of judgmental monologues as the characters sort themselves and each other out. But there’s a strong center here, an empathy for outcasts, a voice for the adrift. A play like The Cult deserves a cult following. Here’s hoping its development continues.
The Cult—the final production of the 2014-15 New Haven Theater Company season—has three performances remaining: June 4, 5 & 6 at 8 p.m. in the performance space at the back of the English Building Market, 839 Chapel St., New Haven. (203) 772-1728, http://www.newhaventheatercompany.com