The Cult, the new play by Drew Gray, the resident playwright in the New Haven Theater Company, debuts next week at the troupe’s home theater at the back of the English Building Markets. Gray’s last play for NHTC was The Magician, a two-hander about a veteran magician and his manager. The Cult is much more ambitious with a cast of 11 playing 13 characters. What Gray calls “a comedy with serious elements” (he avoids using the term “dramedy”), The Cult began life as a prospective web series, which means it was conceived as taking place over 3 seasons of 6 episodes each. In creating a stand-alone play from the material, Gray wrote a new ending but follows the arc of the first series of episodes. The element of the play that perhaps owes most to its genesis as a web series is the fact that, as Gray says, “this is the most realistic, narrative-driven play” he’s written. Part of that comes from trying to “make it tangible” for the TV-viewing public, and also from the fact that the “sitcom format of 10-15 minute episodes” helped Gray to focus on “the structure of well-made scenes.”
The play concerns a young man working an office day-job who finds his real identity as the leader of a cult called Albean. Played by Christian Shaboo, who starred in Shipwrecked!, one of the other large-scale undertakings by NHTC, Tyler is a figure for the effort to find human connection apart from employment and family. Tyler’s job is “not expressly mentioned,” Gray says, but conceives of it as something suitably nondescript, such as head of a regional office for some national corporation.
A range of lonely souls from mid-twenties to mid-forties looking for a sense of connection is the focus of the play. While not questioning religious groups per se, Gray is interested in how “people find community in weird ways” and in the sort of grassroots organizations and spiritual possibilities that seem to have been much more common before everyone started living online. In fact, Gray says, there’s a very lo-tech aspect to the cult, which communicates with posted flyers and the like.
As is often his working method, Gray researched the play after he had already written a good portion of it, looking into the kinds of do-it-yourself cults there are in the world. Much of the fun in writing the play was in devising the rules and guidelines the members would follow and in determining the cult’s system of beliefs. “Basically,” Gray says, “the cult is a narrative device for creating this big, ridiculous family” of off-beat characters, and for inspiring “real laughs with goofy cultural humor.” Even the name “Albean” can have various interpretations: “all-being,” “I’ll-be-an . . .” or, to my mind, the name of a late night coffee shop for the worship of caffeine, “the All Bean.”
But The Cult doesn’t play the cult entirely for laughs, as the show, though “laughter-driven, is never a straight-up comedy.” Gray, who also directs, is interested in “the intricacy of relationships,” and some of the back-stories of the characters, as developed by the cast in rehearsals, are complex and not very upbeat. For some cult-members, there may be romantic possibilities, and for some, the overcoming of certain issues from their regular lives. And there are ceremonial aspects to the cult, involving ritual objects and regalia, which means there is a “bigger costume component” than in most NHTC shows.
In hearing Gray describe this latest project and the sense of belonging that, many attest, comes from meeting regularly to perform certain comforting rituals, I couldn’t help thinking of theater itself. NHTC, comprised of thespians with day-jobs, might be seen, without too big a stretch, as a cult. Gray laughed at the notion, but allowed that anything that brings people together might function as an analogy.
What is the cult trying to achieve? What is the purpose of their practices? Attend “a meeting” at the English Markets and find out.
New Haven Theater Company
Written and directed by Drew Gray
May 28-30 and June 3-6, 2015
English Building Markets 839 Chapel Street