In the beginning there was always a man who had worked it all out. After long contemplation, he would claim that he alone had achieved Enlightenment and would devote the rest of his life to “fixing” the world. All he needed in order to accomplish this was a devoted band of worker/disciples who believed in everything he said and followed his every command.
Think Jim Jones. David Koresh. L. Ron Hubbard.
In a new play currently having its world premiere in Los Angeles, playwright Allen Barton explores this phenomenon that has engaged would-be prophets throughout history. The play is called “Disconnection,” and even though it appears to be a thinly disguised portrait of L. Ron Hubbard and the evolution of his Church of Scientology, it actually illustrates the insidious development of all sorts of disturbing cults of this kind. It starts, often, with a man who initially believes in his own message. He has a plan to change the nature of men because he believes, he says, in their essential spirituality. But even as he says this, he reveals his intense contempt for them.
To form his merry band he appeals to individuals who are helpless and hopeless, confused, unhappy, suffering from life’s losses and abuses. Individuals who are looking for someone to give them hope, to tell them what to do, to provide their lives with purpose. And most of all, to promise them serenity.
And so “Disconnection” follows six people whose lives intertwine as they each follow their engagement and disengagement with the cult.
First we meet Landon (Jay Huguley), a successful lawyer, who is still suffering guilt four years after inadvertently killing his wife in an automobile accident. He has come to take piano lessons from Michel (Dennis Nollette), an elderly pianist who ekes out a living by providing lessons and, when he likes the student, plying him with bits of cultish philosophy.
Then there is Tess (Carter Scott), a big shot in the cult hierarchy, who has “disconnected” from her father, Landon, in response to a command from her organizational superiors. Having joined the cult at 16, she is now becoming doubtful and disillusioned about its methods, which have become more dictatorial over time.
Tess is especially concerned about the “discipline” doled out to anyone who questions the rules established by the leader, Oldman (Robert L. Hughes). Such dissenters must be “suppressed” and ostracized, or “disconnected,” physically and emotionally, from everyone else in the group.
Tess’ dilemma is exacerbated by the fact that she is pregnant, a condition that is unacceptable for people whose time and efforts must be totally focused on bettering the world. Moreover, her partner, Nick (Luke Cook), is thoroughly entrenched in the workings of the cult and refuses to leave with her. He urges her to abort their child. “Clean your transgression,” he tells her.
An abortion is also demanded by the Chairman, a harsh young man who has usurped the role of Oldman and seems to take special delight in bullying Tess. He is described as “being clever without being intelligent.”
This is an exceptionally well-wrought play with beautifully written, easy-flowing dialogue and meaningful monologues. But matching Allen Barton’s convincing exposition of a subject he knows a great deal about is the equally superb directing of Joel Polis, who moves this thought-provoking play forward with ease and efficiency.
The cast, too, is uniformly wonderful, but for me the star of the production is Dennis Nollette, the piano teacher Michel, who offers his comments with slow deliberation, exquisite pauses, and quiet dignity. Bravo, Michel. You almost give cults a good name.
“Disconnection,” the kickoff of the Skylight Theatre Company’s 2015 season, can be seen at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 South Roberson Blvd., in Beverly Hills on Fridays at 8:30 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m. through March 29.
For tickets, call (213) 761-7061 or visit http://skylighttix.com.