Lester Dupree is out to save your soul — and make a mean living doing it. In his new play, Ron Simonian plays the pastor in a portrayal that mimics televangelists and their money-raking techniques. Yet The Soul Collector, at the Unicorn Theatre, falls short of satire or parody. Despite multiple targets — an invasive religious right, a combative and divisive fundamentalism — it misses its mark.
Designed as holiday entertainment — kind of — the play is yet another derivation of A Christmas Carol. There's no mistaking Dupree as a hateful Scrooge type, but this Dickens revision is a distant relation.
In this production, co-directed by Cynthia Levin and Johnny Wolfe, the aim of self-professed "soul collector" Dupree is to cleanse people's souls, like a spiritual baptism, in preparation for the afterlife. And his TV show is the venue from which he preaches to an alleged worldwide audience. From the center aisle, a cameraman (Francisco "Pancho Javier" Villegas) silently operates a tiny device on a tripod, projecting the "show" on a screen at the back of the stage. While we watch the play, we simultaneously see what's supposed to be a live broadcast.
Technically wanting, the images suggest amateur hour, less network than public-access cable. Maybe that's part of the point, but the challenged A/V adds little to the viewing experience, other than underscoring commercial — and other — programming breaks that arise in the course of this story.
Dupree describes his soul-cleansing mission with enough wet imagery and sexual double-entendre to make you long for drought. Dupree's wife, Jessie (Kelly Main), joins him on the stage — this TV-studio set — and their two teenage daughters, Jodi (Megan Herrera) and Tammy (Rachel Brennan Leyh), dance their way onto the platform with her. This is a musical, for which Simonian has written several songs that he performs, accompanying himself on guitar. (Backup musician John Lenati does good work here.) Jessie tells her husband: "God is my No. 1, but you are my No. 2." The intent is scatological. Later, Dupree's description of his cure for his wife's gynecological problem is graphically relayed.
It's crude stuff, and it does deliver some laughs. But the program's format gets old as Dupree jumps from one hot topic to the next, preaching and singing and railing against cultural changes and nonbelievers ("atheists, agnostics, Mexicans"), homosexuals, Harry Potter and feminists, pandering to a narrow-minded TV audience. References to news and political events are woven in, but Simonian's writing aims low and broad. Men, not women, he insists, minister because of the biblical passage "Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me." And women, he emphasizes, should "do it when and how men want" — a line of dialogue that brought what I have to hope was ironic fist-pumping verbal agreement from one member of the audience.
His daughters sometimes take issue with his teachings (on live TV? really?), but this family finds ways to work around its differences. After all, their goal is to sell: a "master power prayer plan" for $40, "Jesus Juice, just $19.99 a case from Amazon.com," among an abundance of other products and programs for the multitude. It's here that Simonian's play comes closest to making a point.
Simonian's big personality should be a good match for this kind of character, a dogmatic, charismatic TV preacher. But as written, Dupree and his family are holy-roller caricatures, and this piece has the depth of cartoon. Though Villegas' "cameraman" becomes a welcome distraction when the one-act starts feeling too long, this Scrooge story needs a lot of re-envisioning if Simonian means for it to join the alternative-Christmas-show canon.