Steven Fales was once a “Mormon American Prince,” a sixth-generation member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which, he points out, is the United States’ fastest-growing religious denomination. Seen by many as uptight, conformist and locked in a war with the 20th century, the LDS are an ideal subject for insider satire, and Fales is very knowing — and chatty — about the church that excommunicated him for homosexuality. His solo performance, Confessions of a Mormon Boy, now running at the Coast Playhouse, traces his misadventures as a gay man in an antigay religion, and as a believer who embraced marriage, fatherhood and “reparative therapy” in order to conquer his desire for other men until, finally, he accepted who he is.
As the chorus from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” fades out (when was the last time you heard that over the Coast’s PA?), Fales materializes on a set that contains only the barest essentials: a coat rack, a backless bench and a stand for his water bottle. This is the existential prairie of the performer-confessor, and Fales, wearing a Brigham Young University T-shirt, is clearly at home here, having developed his show for nearly seven years. That prologue chorus is soon replaced by a recording of Fales singing as a 5-year-old.
“I’m a Mormon and that’s why I smile like this,” Fales tells us, beginning the story of how he went from being one of the church’s Young Ambassadors, Mormon entertainers who proselytize the faith abroad through song and dance, to a male prostitute in New York City. In a sense, this show is the story of Fales’ smile as its meaning evolves from a wholesome rictus to stiff upper lip to mask of denial. He takes us on a journey of personal discovery that begins with his missionary “ambassadorship” in Portugal, moves on to church counseling sessions aimed at curing him of his homosexuality (he’s assured that “God made no man a pervert”) and to a truly virgin wedding night after he marries into “Mormon royalty.” (His wife, Emily, was the daughter of Carol Lynn Pearson, who, in Goodbye, I Love You, wrote about her own gay husband succumbing to AIDS.)
Despite all his efforts to fly straight, Fales has affairs with men behind his wife’s back until she divorces him. He’s drummed out of the church following a perfunctory hearing of elders in a Mormon court of love. Then, at the age of 30, he splits for New York, where he hopes to pursue an acting career while waiting on tables. However, providence (or its antipode) intervenes, and he is soon snapped up by a male-escort service, and away he goes, turning tricks and swan-diving into a life of anonymous sex, drugs and money. Lots of money.
Fales is an attractive and engaging personality who wins us over with charm instead of ingratiating gestures. He’s boyish without appearing naive, mischievous without being cynical. In his opening moments, you never know which way Fales is going to go with his story. Watching Mormon Boy, we find it impossible to imagine another actor taking over the role, in the same way a new production of Swimming to Cambodia would be inconceivable without its late author, Spalding Gray: Not only is the material deeply personal, but so is the performance. However, cracks do appear during the evening, and they only widen as Fales’ show wears on.
The main problem is that Fales devotes far too much time in 90 minutes to what might be called his Utah period — that is, the first hour, in which we hear all about his life in the church, even as he struggles with his homosexuality, and which culminates with the breakup of his marriage.
The early details of that life and its furtive dreams and unseemly compromises are vividly presented, but after about 30 minutes, we start wondering when Fales is going to find the closet doorknob and move on. Once he does, he treats us to a roller-coaster ride in New York — this is the stuff we’ve been waiting for — but, like any roller coaster, this one comes to a quick end. Fales hedges his bets on audience approval by talking about missing his family and presenting Manhattan as a sinful aberration that he was able to escape. By show’s end, we take inventory of his New York lifestyle — all-night sex parties, a Hudson full of vodka, rail lines of coke stretching from Soho to Midtown, and haggard, sunrise glimpses of the Empire State Building — only to ask: AND YOU GAVE THIS UP?
Obviously, the wife and children Fales left behind are important to him, but his references to their absence in his life take on a mooning and somewhat manipulative tone. Fales simply doesn’t trust his audience to follow him and so tries to have it both ways — he wants to set up Mormonism as a comedic piñata but also pay homage to its solidity; and to regale us with his badass Manhattan hijinks but tell us what a caring family man he is. By the second time he resorts to playing a childhood recording of himself singing, this particular ploy seems overly precious. Isn’t this the equivalent, we wonder, of showing home movies of yourself?
Part of this is director Jack Hofsiss’ fault. He has abetted Fales’ Hallmark impulses by allowing him to present himself as a completely trustworthy narrator whose prime grievances are an unfeeling church, a cheapskate dad and a fleeting weakness for crystal meth. He also allows Fales’ performance, which began as a comedy routine, to remain stuck in its standup format. Fales adds no dimension to his autobiography, oversimplifying it by telling us how silly and unforgiving Mormonism is without explaining what he really misses about it. (He mentions some dream he once had about riding horses on the sage with his pioneer ancestors, but that hardly satisfies our curiosity about Mormonism’s ontological allure.) It’s possible to imagine another director taking the same material and breaking it up into less cuddly (or, at least, less predictable) conclusions about Fales (David Schweizer, who has directed such idiosyncratic soloists as John Fleck and Sandra Tsing Loh, comes to mind).
Religion, like politics, is a tricky subject to translate into comedy. There have always been plenty of sentimental Jewish or Italian Catholic plays and solo performances, but these play more to ethnic archetypes than spiritual beliefs. Mormonism is especially difficult to present, since it’s a relatively modern religion with roots in the Anglo-Irish push West, and, because of this, many nonbelievers frankly regard it as a cult. (Fales tellingly says of his marriage, “We were the Tom and Nicole of Mormonism.”)
Tony Kushner grappled with “the saints,” somewhat successfully, via the Mormon characters in his Angels in America plays. Perhaps Kushner felt that, as an Eastern Jew, he needed to make sure he wasn’t belittling an easy religious target, while Fales, a Western Mormon, might not want to seem overly zealous about his affection for Zion. Ultimately, Fales probably has too much material for one performance and, not surprisingly, is said to be working on a new show. If nothing else, this should demonstrate that there are second acts in Mormonism.
CONFESSIONS OF A MORMON BOY | Written and performed by STEVEN FALES | COAST PLAYHOUSE, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd. | Thru Feb. 18 | (800) 595-4849