Of course, Hubbard never claimed to be God — though he dabbled in just about everything but deity, as this informative albeit irreverent biographical frolic points out, engaging in repeated recitations of its subject’s occupations, from atomic physicist and science-fiction author to horticulturist and choreographer. (There’s even a sci-fi interlude, complete with planetary cutouts and neon-light effects, based on Hubbard’s thesis that thetan spirits entered earthlings after being banished here by an evil galactic ruler.) Sophie Rich, in tinsel halo, wings, lace-trimmed socks, and sneakers, narrates most of the tale. An accomplished singer/actress with a résumé as long as your arm, Rich, for all her experience, exudes the proud, buoyant amateurism that Southerland foxily builds into the endeavor, right down to a chaotic curtain call in which the kids seem not sure just what to do — after which the show bursts back into life, venturing into the aisles to get the audience clapping along to the catchy hootenanny strains of “When you’re feeling pain/Say his name/There is no other/L. Ron Hubbard!” If some of the cast members come more easily to the rough-edged, hi-mom spontaneity, all navigate quite well the show’s clever course of enthused unsophistication.
There is a point to A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, apart from just sending up Scientology by reducing its tenets to a childlike cataloguing of reactive-mind-banishing, past-pain-purging, positive-thinking pabulum doused with smily-faced song and dance. Jarrow says he does not find the belief system to be without merit. (Still, don’t be surprised if you hear there’s been a Scientology fatwa issued against the author/composer.) What seems to creep him out is the church’s cultish tendency to isolate its believers, replacing their individuality with passivity, slathering their need to ask difficult questions with a balm of easy answers. The pageant’s gang of kids, having graduated from what Hubbard calls “pre-clear” to “clear,” appear sporting masks of one another — as if they’d become interchangeable. Scientology may or may not do that to you. But Scientology Pageant definitely does not. Here are eight individual performing personalities marching rag-tag to a hilariously questionable tune.
Gray-bearded Avner Eisenberg is no kid, but there is something childlike about his dexterously hapless long-time alter ego, Avner the Eccentric. In the veteran new vaudevillean’s Exceptions to Gravity (at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston through December 23), the shy, mischievous Avner makes rude noises, stares down his pants, and allows himself to be tyrannized by the lighting. He also juggles bats, balances an enormous ladder on his face, makes a pet of a wriggling red cloth pocket square, and eats a flapjack-size stack of paper napkins. A bald charmer in red suspenders, Avner is ultimately triumphant in his ongoing battle with any number of inanimate objects; indeed, his props — in cahoots with varying physical forces, including the title one — appear in the course of an hour and a quarter to stage a massive serial insurrection, which the clown puts down with agility and patience. Certainly he earns the audience adulation that he proceeds to conduct as if it were a guffawing symphony. Avner is very good at what he does. He should be; he has been doing it for a long time. But venerable though the audience-interactive clown may be, he remains in touch with his inner toddler — and with the outer ones, too. At the opening-afternoon performance, the cracking up of kids in the audience, who clearly found this master of physical comedy wittier than Oscar Wilde crossed with Chris Rock, was delightful to hear.