An eye for absurdity can take you a long way: The work of the engaging solo performer Steven Fales is a case in point. His trio of autobiographical one-man shows — “Confessions of a Mormon Boy,” “Missionary Position” and “Prodigal Dad,” running in repertory at Richmond Triangle Players — looks back at the darkest episodes of his life: a long, unsuccessful struggle to deny his own homosexuality; his excommunication from the Mormon church, whose tenets had shaped him; a shattering rift with his two young children. This is heart-rending stuff — not the kind of material you’d expect to find mixed with a song called “The Excommunication Polka” or a kooky fantasy about converting Vasco da Gama to the faith of Brigham Young.
And you might not have expected the quips Fales dishes out when describing his stint as a drug-dependent callboy in New York City. “I might as well get paid for learning,” he wisecracks, describing the attitude of his younger self.
A keen sense of the ridiculous — displayed in telling narrative details, some droll characterizations and, especially, a wealth of verbal zingers — leavens the “Mormon Boy Trilogy,” which is appearing in Richmond as Fales polishes the plays prior to a planned New York run. Fales’s sense of humor probably helped him survive his personal ordeals; it also jump-started his career. “Confessions,” the first of the three scripts, was a hit at the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival (years before the blockbuster musical “The Book of Mormon” presented its own irreverent approach to the faith), played off-Broadway in 2006 (at which point it was directed by Tony Award-winner Jack Hofsiss) and has toured widely.
Not surprisingly, “Confessions” is the most polished production in the trilogy, and the one that best exemplifies Fales’s flair for writing that shifts with artful boldness between levity, bleak drama and warmth. Moving animatedly around the chair that’s the principal set element, and occasionally backed by projections (personal photos, stunning shots of Utah scenery, etc.), the actor tells his story. One minute, he’s recounting his encounters with conversion therapy — spoofing the hair-swishing gestures and sing-song intonations of a specialist who blames his same-sex attraction on trauma experienced in past lives. Then he’s recalling how, in a bid for “heterosexual wholeness,” he started “listening to Garth Brooks and George Strait instead of Ricky Martin or ‘Bernadette Peters at Carnegie Hall.’ ” Then he’s describing the chill bureaucracy of his excommunication, an event followed by his divorce from his wife, another sixth-generation Mormon.
“Missionary Position” — a 2009 prequel to “Confessions” that centers on Fales’s years as a missionary in Portugal — lacks the forward momentum and deftly variegated rhythms of “Confessions.” But it has a disarming candor, and the fantasy sequence about da Gama (complete with cartoon-style projections) is pleasantly zany. The play also contains Fales’s ultra-skeptical recollection of rituals in a Mormon temple, whose staff he at one point describes as “Mormon Oompa Loompas.”
The darkest of the plays is “Prodigal Dad,” which pivots around Fales’s legal battle to stay involved in his children’s lives. Although moving and often suspenseful — and still as funny (“The Excommunication Polka” crops up here) — the piece feels too long: On Saturday night, when Fales gave it a spirited airing, script in hand, it clocked in at 21 / 2 hours. (The other shows are about 90 minutes each.) Even when he’s off-book, some trimming will be in order.
The plays are more or less self-contained and do not have to be seen together. Still, whittling on “Prodigal Dad” and tightening on “Missionary Position” could make the “Mormon Boy Trilogy,” as a whole, an even more satisfying example of a rare artistic commodity: a stand-up-comedy-infused autobiographical epic, containing chapter after chapter of absorbing spiritual and personal crisis, sly cultural commentary and humor.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Written and performed by Steven Fales. Lighting and projection design, David White; technical direction, Kevin Johnson. Tickets: $30 per show, with a discount for Saturday “marathon” viewings of all the shows. Through Feb. 9 at Richmond Triangle Players, 1300 Altamont Ave., Richmond. Visit www.rtriangle.org or call 804-346-8113.