By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Sweeney’s exploration of faith begins with her seventh birthday, during which she’s told there’s no Santa Claus, but it is her adult encounter with Mormons that clues her to the fact that, viewed from a distance, all religions look rather kooky to modern eyes:
“If someone came to my door with Catholic theology, and I was hearing it for the first time and they said, ‘We believe that God impregnated a very young girl without the use of intercourse, and the fact that she was a virgin is maniacally important to us, and she eventually had a baby and he was the son of God,’ I would think that was equally ridiculous.”
Sweeney grew up steeped in Irish-American Catholicism, which she embraced more as a girl’s movie fantasy than a faith — a child’s secret sanctuary of incense and Gregorian chants, guarded by meditating nuns and worldly priests. As an adult, she tried to expand her understanding of the Bible by taking a study class at a liberal Santa Monica parish, only to come face to face with a scripture that trumps Scientology when it comes to baroque imagination. Suddenly she’s confronted with the tribal barbarism of the Old Testament and the malarial visions of the New — rape, incest on the one hand, cultish mind control on the other.
One of the show’s funniest — and most blasphemous — moments is her interpretation of the Book of Revelation. As the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” rises in the background, Sweeney takes on the voice of an LSD-addled narrator who sputters, “In Heaven, Jesus resembles a dead lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. When the gates of Hell are opened, locusts pour out with human faces, wearing tiny crowns, and they sting people with their tails.”
Disillusioned by the Bible, Sweeney goes on to explore other faiths, from pantheism to Buddhism and points in between, only to reject them all. She’s at her comic best when interacting with others in her search — especially her devout parents, who, toward the story’s end, take in clueless stride Sweeney’s announcement that she no longer believes in God.
“This doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to go to Mass anymore, does it?” her mother asks.
Sweeney, who created both the endearing office drudge Mea Culpa while she was a member of the Groundlings theater company, and the androgynous character Pat on Saturday Night Live, is that rare performer who brings technical talent and contemplative powers to her live stage shows, which have included And God Said, “Ha!” and In the Family Way. Moving about Steven Young’s spare but homey set at the Hudson Backstage Theater, she quickly establishes a bond with her audience that never lets go.
Nevertheless, with a two-hour running time, her show is about 15 minutes too long — maybe even more, judging by how Sweeney seemed to rush some of the material on opening night. And while she mostly avoids the sentimental pitfalls of memoir theater, she still resorts to two emotional gimmicks — Family Album Slides and Funny Things My Daughter Said. Letting Go of God and A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant will turn out to be bruising evenings for the concerned faithful, though no one can accuse Sweeney or Jarrow and Timbers of malice. Perhaps a little sacrilege is good for the soul.
A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED CHILDREN’S SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT| Book, lyrics and music by KYLE JARROW, from a concept by ALEX TIMBERS | At the POWERHOUSE THEATER, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica | Through November 21 | (866) 633-6246
LETTING GO OF GOD | By JULIA SWEENEY | At the HUDSON BACKSTAGE THEATER, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through November 21 | (323) 960-4420