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Home / Articles / · Archive / Arts & Entertainment /  Off-Broadway Bound
Arts & Entertainment

Off-Broadway Bound

Plan-B Theatre Company takes a fine-tuned Facing East to New York.

By Rob Tennant
Posted // June 22,2007 -

New York is a tough town. Ask any of your friends who moved out for a year or three before getting spit all the way back over the Rockies. The city has a way of expelling the weak.

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No wonder the cast and crew of Plan-B Theatre Company’s Facing East were apprehensive about taking their show Off-Broadway for a June run. I was afraid we wouldn’t sell a single ticket,Jerry Rapier, the show’s director and the company’s co-founder, admitted when I sat down with the Salt Lake City contingent after a Saturday night performance in the Big Apple.

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His fears were unfounded, however. The theater'an underground bunker recently built as the second stage for one of New York City’s hottest companies'was packed.

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The show depicts a quintessential Utah drama: Mormon parents of a gay man who has committed suicide on the Salt Lake City temple grounds stand over his still-gaping grave, pondering his life and the manner of his death while trying to attribute blame. When the boyfriend of the deceased shows up with flowers, thinking he’s come late enough to miss the crowd, things get really good.

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The play’s action takes place under a heavy layer of references to Mormon culture and theology, and they were devoured by the Salt Lake City audiences during the original run last November and a return engagement in April. The show includes talk of temple marriage, mission work and priesthood. Author Carol Lynn Pearson can’t resist mentioning the funeral potatoes on which “the sisters worked so hard.”

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Back here in Zion, these characters and topics are familiar almost to the point of shorthand cliché. We have all known (or even been) a straight-laced homemaker like Ruth (Jayne Luke) or a strong patriarch like Alex (Charles Lynn Frost). He was bishop twice. Or maybe you relate more to Marcus (Jay Perry), the man mourning his beloved and trying to get his head around this thing called the LDS Church. Regardless of your point of view, that’s a lot of local baggage for one 75-minute play.

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In New York, though, most of those reference points aren’t nearly as familiar. Sure, Mormonism is naturally intriguing to outsiders, and the presidential bid by Mitt Romney has recently brought the local faith even more attention than usual. To the East Coast audience, however, most of those details are nothing more than texture'background for a story of three human beings. “Out here, it’s just a play,” Rapier says. Perry continues that line of reasoning by suggesting, “The show is specific enough to be universal?.

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The show has been changed by more than just geography. Since its original run in Salt Lake City last fall, a short flashback to the deer hunt that Alex and his then-living son went on has been added. There have also been countless small changes to lines, in order to, as Frost puts it, “say with three words what had been said in five, or maybe now with just a look.”

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In the most obvious and effective example of that, the show’s opening has been trimmed to let the audience sit in silence with Ruth and Alex and feel the tension between them that emanates from the grave in the center of the stage. “It had been hard to start the show,” Rapier says about that particular decision, “hard for them [Frost and Luke] to be bigger than this hole in the ground.”

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The aggregate result of the changes is a marked improvement. The people involved with the production have not been willing to settle for easy melodrama. The changes let the subtlety of the performances carry the most difficult moments.

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The cast agrees that after all the script tinkering, two runs in Salt Lake, and now a new temporary home in the cultural capital of the nation, the show has found a groove. “[It] is less different now from night to night than it’s ever been,” Perry says. Having worked on and inhabited these characters for the better part of a year now, all three actors seem very much at home onstage.

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The audience knows it, too. The show has been well received by New York audiences and critics alike. Despite initial reservations from some theatergoers about the ability of a bunch of interlopers'from Utah of all places'to put on a polished and moving piece of work, they come out raving about the play. Most are wiping their eyes, as well.

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After all, these characters are familiar to them, too. You don’t have to come from Utah to appreciate the challenges people face in trying to relate to each other. The themes transcend the details of the religion of the parents, and the orientation of the young couple. Ultimately, anyone'even New Yorkers'can understand a play about love.

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