PLAY REVIEW: Barton Disconnects

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The  controversial Church of Scientology has been in the crosshairs of the media of late, notably with Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright's excellent journalistic study Going Clear and Paul Thomas Anderson's  film The Master.  Now comes Allen Barton's play Disconnection, which opened Saturday at the Beverly Hills Playhouse venue of the Skylight Theatre Company in Los Angeles.

Like The Master, Disconnection does not mention the "S"-word but it is more than obvious the celebrity-driven religion famed for almost imprisoning its gullible and needy adherents is the subject here.  The play, however, is considerably more potent and provocative than the Anderson movie, which is surprisingly ponderous given its dramatic subject.

Barton, who extricated himself from Scientology some years ago, tells the story of the apostasy of two members of the church, a father and a daughter, who have themselves been estranged from each other.  The two are trying to disconnect from the religion and reconnect with each other -- and it isn't easy.  The father (Jay Hugely), a lawyer, is struggling with his aging piano teacher (Dennis Nollette), himself a reluctant member of the church and onetime friend of its mercurial L. Ron Hubbard-like founder, Oldman.  The daughter (Carter Scott), herself now a high ranking church official, is trapped in a nightmare with Oldman's successor, a junior Gestapo-type named The Chairman.

Indeed Disconnection often puts you in mind of other totalitarianisms, including today's radical Islamic versions where apostasy is, of course, penalized in even more draconian manners than in Scientology, although there are imputations, both in and out of Barton's play, of  brutal, even homicidal, behavior for the more modern religion.

The play is unconventional in its form, at times breaking the fourth wall, and includes, in one of its best moments, a soliloquy by Oldman (well played by Robert L. Hughes) justifying why he has created this bizarre monstrosity.  It almost had me taking the plunge to get an e-meter reading. (I didn't.)

The production was skillfully directed by Joel Polis and produced by Gary Grossman for Skylight. Barton's previous work Years to the Day was highly acclaimed and was performed in Paris, New York, Kansas City and at the Edinburgh Festival.  The superb Disconnection seems destined to follow in its footsteps.  If you're in the SoCal area, see it.