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Faith to Faith

Date: May 29, 2008


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Rinne Groff has counter-intuitive instincts--just the sort you'd expect from the playwright who brought the world Jimmy Carter Was a Democrat (a play about a labor historian and some air traffic controllers, and not our 39th president) and The Ruby Sunrise (in which she reimagined the inventor of television as a feisty farmgirl), and who began her work in the theatre as a founding member of the avant-garde troupe Elevator Repair Service.

In a similar spirit of unlikeliness, Groff's newest gig makes a kind of sense: She's the co-librettist and co-lyricist for Saved, a new musical adaptation of the 2004 film comedy about a pop-cultural collision between Christianity and teenage confusion. With book and lyrics co-written by John Dempsey and music by the Civilians' Michael Friedman, Saved opens at Playwrights Horizons in June.

"I've been interested in questions of faith, and how that can be portrayed dramatically," Groff says, taking a break between commitments, which include not only writing work (she wrote a season of the Showtime series Weeds) but caring for her 16-month-old daughter. While she credits Playwrights Horizons artistic director Tim Sanford with the following observation, it sounds like the sort of thing Groff would arrive at on her own.

"He said, 'New York is the heartbeat, the center of secular humanism, and to try and engage in a discussion of faith in this environment is almost the most subversive thing you can do,' " Groff says. "I know that's true in my life, anyway, and with a lot of theatregoing people."

If committed Christian faith seems exotic to many New York theatre folk, the question arises: What stance do Groff and her co-conspirators take toward it? Are they laughing at it, laughing with it or keeping a straight face?

"At the end of the day, this isn't a light musical comedy," Groff says by way of clarification. "The stakes for these characters could not be higher from the get-go. It's interesting, because the two central issues of the play--a young man discovering he's gay, and a young woman discovering she's pregnant--are both issues that are not a very big deal with New York theatre audiences. But they're a huge deal for these characters."

There is plenty humor and horror, in other words, but minus the emotional distance of satire.

"We always want the show to be funny, and it is funny, but we don't want the humor to come at the expense of our main characters, who are going through something really important to them," Groff says.

Along those lines, Groff quotes Sandy Stern, one of movie's producers who's also involved in the stage version. "Sandy says sometimes, 'People think the movie is funnier than it is.' And that's true: If you come to the movie or the play looking for a send-up of evangelical Christianity, you won't get that. It's more complicated than that. It's about questions of faith, so we didn't want to do a send-up or a parody. It's more complicated and scarier this way."

Groff recalls a recent visit to Altar Boyz, another show that ostensibly parodies Christian pop culture but has also been embraced, both in its local run and in touring productions, as something nearly indistinguishable from the real thing.

"That show does thread a needle--it can be taken seriously as well as satirically, and I got the sense that the audience I was with was really into it, not ironically into it," Groff said.

Besides, for some secular liberals as much as for true-blue believers, religious faith is no laughing matter. "I understand people who say, 'No, these evangelicals are taking over the world; I don't want to see a comedy about them,' " Groff concedes. "But that's not what this show is going to offer."

For her, the chance to explore an unfamiliar area was her way into the material.

"There is a political component to evangelical Christianity, and that's also part of what attracted me to this," Groff says. "When Bush was reelected in 2004, I remember it very clearly. I was feeling, 'This is really going to happen!' I was talking to a friend on the phone in L.A. who was saying, 'There is no way he's going to be reelected. I don't know anyone who's voting for him!' It reminded how much I live in a bubble that is out of touch with a great portion of the country."

Gross calls that experience "a nice wakeup call for me. As an American artist--and I am an American artist--it's no longer conscionable for me live in that bubble. I needed to really find out more about a part of the country I knew very little about. That was my politics in terms of engaging with the material."

She quotes a passage from St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians that's used in the show, which she found particularly inspiring--the phrase right after the famous, "For now see through a glass, darkly," which is, "but then face to face."

"For me, that is the doorway into the politics," Groff says. "There are really divergent viewpoints here, but is it possible for us to see face to face? In the theatre, we're in a room together communicating, and to me that's the most hopeful political aspiration we have--that open dialogue could be engaged in."

Click here for more information about Saved.