What does the Devil watch on TV? Reality shows, of course, chortling at the mayhem as foul-mouthed, amoral youngsters compete to be “interesting.”
“It’s my fast food,” Satan grins in “Something Past in Front of the Light,” a brave and breezy new play by Kathleen Akerley that gives us the Devil we know and — more interestingly — the Devil we don’t.
Of course Beelzebub giggles at the no-rules squalor on the tube. But did you know the poor fellow had a hard time growing up in the suburbs? He shows us his home movies, effectively staged by Akerley (who directed, with assistance from Michael Glenn) inside a big fake screen at the far end of the small Callan Theatre stage at Catholic University.
And as he explains what he’s showing to the documentary filmmakers who want to make a movie about him, Alexander Strain unexpectedly plays the Devil as a neurotic kid, pouty and twitchy and routinely tucking his face deep inside his hoodie.
The potential documentary provides plenty of friction for Akerley’s thoughtful drama. Does the movie have to tell the absolute truth? The director, who practically slobbers over the opportunity to work with such a legendary subject, doesn’t think so. His Christian cinematographer, on the other hand, thinks accuracy and ethics matter, and he’s skeptical that the guy they’re dealing with is the Fiend himself.
As they argue, the Devil confounds the cliches that mankind perpetuates (though not the one about him being an expert tempter and a splendid debater). To raise the stakes — and perhaps also just because he’s insulted — it’s possible that he has ripped the documentary’s narrator to bits.
So “Something Past” is about faith and narrative: What’s the Devil’s story, really? Akerley has wicked fun with this as the filmmakers audition impostors who want to star in the movie, and Jay Hardee’s campy turn as a caped, gurgling demon wannabe is easily the show’s comic high point.
But there are witticisms all along the way; it’s a serious show that frequently runs on brisk banter. (George Bernard Shaw fans, there’s your invitation.)
The production is by Longacre Lea, Akerley’s once-a-year company, and the actors confidently take it in hand and keep you alert as they skirmish. Strain is a remarkable sparkplug: He’s ridiculously compelling as the Devil, stalking the stage barefoot, the cuffs of his jeans rolled up and his face knotted.
It’s not hard to buy in to the possibility that this elusive, silver-tongued, combustible figure is plugged in to staggering religious histories and theological possibilities. (Just wait till you hear his version of the crucifixion.)
The rest of the cast is up to the challenge of high purpose — actually facing God, could you ask the right questions? — and droll jokes. Christopher Henley amusingly soft-sells his portrait of the documentary filmmaker, a man fluent in the art of moral compromise. Jason Lott coolly and firmly delivers the Christian counterpoint as the cinematographer, and Daniel Vito Siefring is appropriately snarky as the actor who ruffles the Devil’s feathers.
The arguments eventually grow pretty fine-grained, and by the second act you may suspect that a little more dramatic compression is possible. But the play is lively and unceasingly smart, and it’s getting a darned good premiere.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
by Kathleen Akerley. Directed by Kathleen Akerley, with assistance from Michael Glenn. Set, Mark J. Wujcik; costumes, Anna Lathrop; lights, John Burkland; sound, Neil McFadden. With Carlos Bustamante, Ashley DeMain and Stephanie Roswell. About 21 / 2 hours. Through Sept. 4 at Catholic University’s Callan Theatre, 3801 Harewood Rd. NE. Call 202-460-2188 or visit longacrelea.org/ticketinfo/html.