In 1987, when Adam Simon and Tim Robbins' play "Carnage, a Comedy" debuted, it worked as a wicked satire of televangelism. The show now seems prescient, predicting the militaristic streak of the religious right back when many pundits were satisfied to comment trivially about the alarming amount of mascara on Tammy Faye Bakker's face.

In 1987, when Adam Simon and Tim Robbins’ play “Carnage, a Comedy” debuted, it worked as a wicked satire of televangelism. The show now seems prescient, predicting the militaristic streak of the religious right back when many pundits were satisfied to comment trivially about the alarming amount of mascara on Tammy Faye Bakker’s face. The current revival of “Carnage” at the Actors’ Gang is vital and hilarious, succeeding as a smart comedy and a surprisingly thoughtful examination of faith. Director Beth F. Milles gets expert work from a sharp ensemble, anchored by V.J. Foster’s brilliant lead.

TV preacher Cotton Slocum (Foster) runs the God’s Happy Acres church/amusement park, a “charismatic optimistic Pentecostal” operation that keeps him fat and happy, if not debt-free. He’s assisted in his ministry by his perfectly bland wife Tipper (Donna Jo Thorndale), his clear-eyed assistant Jerry (Steven M. Porter), adorable moppets Pristeena (Lindsley Allen) and Opie (Scott Harris), not to mention a rabbit puppet called Foo Foo. Slocum is training a younger and more awkward preacher, Tack (Justin Zsebe), to take over for him during a trip to Vegas, but an unexpected bomb blast derails everybody’s plans.

Foster delivers a towering perf, from the preening and sneering cartoon of a man in act one to the deranged prophet wandering the desert in tattered clothes in act two, snarling and begging like Klaus Kinski on a bad peyote trip. Foster’s work in the sequences where Slocum is attempting to bargain with God is truly impressive, and the core of his achievement is that he convincingly turns a self-satisfied demagogue into a humble man who has attained a certain degree of grace.

Stephanie Carrie ably portrays the true believer Dot, representing the well-meaning people of faith who often get taken advantage of by the likes of Slocum. Zsebe is impressive both as the initially nervous and ultimately frightening Tack and the eerily calm voice of Foo Foo, and Thorndale excels as Tipper, with every expression and gesture just right. Porter is funny as Jerry but steals the show as super-positive accident victim Chip, who refuses to be pessimistic, regardless of his severed arm. Finally, Allen and Harris are appropriately innocuous as Pristeena and Opie, and Harris also scores as a creepily apocalyptic preacher.

Milles’ direction displays control and creativity at every turn, from goofy bits like a tiny doll representing Slocum flying overhead on a wire at the end of act one only to end up as Foster rolling onstage at the start of Act Two to Tack’s awesomely ominous walk down a series of steps at the play’s conclusion. Sibyl Wickersheimer’s offbeat but effective set, the space behind the huge lit letters of the GOD’S HAPPY sign at the amusement park, conveys the bigger-than-life aspect of the show as well as underlying tawdriness. Alix Hester’s costumes are superb, from the army of white-suited militants to Slocum’s bedraggled pilgrim outfit.

Carnage, a Comedy

The Actors' Gang; 99 seats; $25 top

Production

An Actors' Gang presentation of a play in two acts by Adam Simon and Tim Robbins. Directed by Beth F. Milles.

Creative

Sets, Sibyl Wickersheimer; costumes, Alix Hester; lighting, Francois-Pierre Couture; sound, John Zalewski; production stage manager, Lindsey Turteltaub. Opened, reviewed Feb. 2, 2008. Runs through March 8. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Phil, Butcher, Survivalist - Pierre Adeli Pristeena, Dana - Lindsley Allen Dot - Stephanie Carrie Bob - Cameron Dye Cotton Slocum - V.J. Foster Opie, PC Jr., Measles - Scott Harris Henry Henderson - Sandro Mastrobuono Clare, Wendy, Magpie, Survivalist - Lauren Oppelt Jerry, Chip - Steven M. Porter Ralph - Chris Schultz Tipper, Survivalist - Donna Jo Thorndale Tack, Foo Foo - Justin Zsebe

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