‘Bash: Latter Day Plays’

These life-affirming riffs will come in handy if you’re still sitting there two nights later, when Bash: Latter Day Plays (Monday, August 28; 8 to 9:45 p.m.; Showtime) has its premium-cable premiere. This, with a modicum of camera flow and fidget, is a filmed version of a stage performance of Neil LaBute’s three one-acters, in which Mormons can be counted on to behave badly. Thus the homophobic hate crime in A Gaggle of Saints is followed by a couple of infanticides in Medea Redux and Iphigenia in Orem. The surprise is that all three shocking acts are babbled about, even oddly bragged on, by people who are not only perfectly presentable but even excruciatingly wholesome – what once upon a time we used to call NYPNS (“Neat Young People in Neat Situations”).

Paul Rudd, for instance, clearly cares for Calista Flockhart, his bubble-headed college sweetheart, in Gaggle. But no sooner has she gone upstairs to a room in the Plaza to sleep off their big date than he’s off with his buddies to Central Park to kick some “faggot” ass. And when Flockhart gets her own star turn in the scariest of these playlets, Medea, unraveling in front of our eyes as she tells us about her seduction, at age 13, and abandonment, with child, by a high-school teacher of literature, she seems to be blurting all, in a victimization monologue, before an open mike on some unseen talk-radio show instead of confiding her story to police interrogators. By the time we get to Ron Eldard in Iphigenia, pushing drinks on a stranger in a hotel room to buy himself a forgiving ear while he explains just what he thought he had to do to his own family to keep from being downsized by the corporation that employs him, we are ready for sudden death; the misogyny is a bonus.

The performances are superb. If Flockhart comes as a surprise to you, it just means you have confused her with David E. Kelley’s erotic-neurotic pop-tort waif on Ally McBeal. Onstage, she’s always had as much range as any playwright needed – still, perhaps, a bundle of nerves looking for a moral compass, but never mere dither. See her, in Medea, remember the hammerhead shark, play with a cigarette, remind her listeners that their tape is running out, and obsess about another, very different Billie (Holiday). Indeed, this Ally sings the junkie blues, but like a scrawny Motown Lady wannabe, a bleached Diana Ross. She rasps.

But her rasping performance – like Rudd’s, holding his own ambivalence at a stiff-armed distance; like Eldard’s (the joke’s on me, isn’t it?) – is in the service of precisely what? Such an ugliness, with interstitial references to Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City, and missions to the Gentile heathen to drive home its angry points. After a night with LaBute, Roman Catholics may find themselves grateful for Mary Gordon and Garry Wills.

It happens that, by accident, I have known more than my fair share of Latter-Day Saints, one of whom gave me the Book of Mormon to read, and two of whom were actually ex-communicated. So I can tell you more than you want to know about the Angel Moroni, the Lost Tribes, and the golden plates; about Kirkland, Nauvoo, and Brigham Young’s Lion House, his schoolroom and his soap shed and his buttery, his 27 wives and his 47 children. And I can say with confidence that these people are no worse than anybody else, and less likely than most to kill their children.

‘Bash: Latter Day Plays’