FLEECE CIRCUS

Lampooning the shysters of evangelism has kept satirists busy ever since the faithful realized that the price of salvation was an empty pocket. What's even more hilarious, the faithful never quite seem to grasp what's going on.

So I expected Lloyd's Prayer to be funnier than it was. But playwright Kevin Kling, whose play debuted at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 1988, goes for the lesser laughs. Lloyd's Prayer, staged here by Actors Theatre of Phoenix, gives its audience isolated chuckles, but turns out to be more a comedy routine than a coherent play about a particular subject.

The play concerns the efforts of Lloyd P. Jones (Jon Simpson), recently released from prison, to use preaching as the road to riches. He teams up with Bob (Jon Gentry), a human who has been raised by raccoons, hoping to lure crowds with the side show. But the focus of the play turns out to be not the preacher Lloyd, but Bob. The audience couldn't help but admire actor Gentry's ability to climb, hang, chirp and in general impersonate a raccoon as convincingly as any human could.

What this had to do with a con man/preacher fleecing the pockets of the faithful was tenuous. The basic idea of the show gets lost amid such assorted characters as a middle-aged cheerleader, a dad who carries on with the pet dog he impersonates, and the personnel director of a company who barks, "You're fired!" as a joke. Presumably, Bob, the raccoon boy in a cage, got people into the tent, but otherwise the idea made no sense.

Most works dealing with Jim Bakker-style scams assume that appealing to the public for money under the guise of Christianity is about as low as you can get, and concentrate on the naivet‚ of believers. At one point, Lloyd went into the audience of the Herberger's Stage West to solicit donations, but since we'd been in on the joke for some time, it was tedious.

My overall feeling was that good actors went to waste. Heidi Ewart and Gerald Burgess play a middle-aged couple who see Bob as an attractive family pet. Ewart goes on to impersonate a limber cheerleader and a tongue-in-cheek angel, both funny parts … la Saturday Night Live. Burgess as the dad has a heart attack early on, a sad demise for such a funny character. But he soon returns as a redneck talk-show host, then as a boss whose desk follows him around attached to his suspenders. The point of no return, though, was reached when Burgess showed up dressed in a fish suit as an adjunct to Lloyd's television commercial for religious articles such as rosaries and holy pictures. If the satire isn't going to get much further than evangelist-as-used-car-salesman, the play doesn't have a whole lot to say.

By the end of the show, we have returned to raccoon boy Bob, who has faced his human sexuality by attaching himself to an angel; they consummate their relationship in a tree. Then Lloyd shows up in an attempt to wrap up the plot. The characters kiss and the music swells, but the logical sense of it all disappeared long before.

Lloyd's Prayer might work as a skit, but it doesn't have enough substance for a full-length play. The end felt just like the beginning--a funny premise with nowhere to go.

 
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