A mild send-up of Scientology is harmless fun — but why so weirdly polite?

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A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant is a surprisingly mild look at the controversial religion (some would say "cult") headquartered in Clearwater and boasting such famous devotees as John Travolta and Tom Cruise. Purporting to tell us the story of its founder L. Ron Hubbard from his own point of view, it takes a gentle tongue-in-cheek attitude for most of its length, and never really dramatizes any of the abuses of which Scientology has been accused. True, they're mentioned a few times — especially in the hour's latter half — but in the theater it's what's enacted that has the most weight, and Pageant regularly fails to show us anything like the brainwashing or kidnapping that's been alleged against the religion.

What we get instead are songs that poke harmless fun at Hubbard's self-importance, bits of biography that show Hubbard as a seeker like Buddha or Socrates, and an introduction to such Hubbardian concepts as "engrams," "thetans" and "the reactive mind." It's clear enough that writer Kyle Jarrow (working from a concept by Alex Timbers) wants us to be skeptics, but Pageant is so polite, its ultimate intent is hard to fathom. There are even moments when it feels as if the play is promoting Scientology.

Pageant features (adult actors) Stephen Ray as L. Ron Hubbard and five other performers — Alison Lea Bender, Tia Jemison, Betty-Jane Parks, Jared Porter and Heather Spillane — in multiple roles. The players sing deliberately saccharine songs about L. Ron Hubbard ("The L stand for love/The L stands for life/The L stands for lead us out of strife") and then show us his quest for the answers to such fundamental questions as "Why are we here? Where are we going? How can we be happy?"

We see him traveling to Hawaii, New York and China in search of wisdom, deciding that he himself will have to provide mankind with its raison d'être, and progressing from writing science fiction novels and screenplays to developing his theory of childhood trauma in a lifeboat after a World War II naval incident. (I should say that Hubbard's actual story seems to be far different from the one — this one — that he tried to propagate.)

Finally he develops Dianetics, with its theory that unconscious memories ("engrams") lead to harmful emotions which then cloud the bright, positive rational mind. As the theory's votaries sing hosannas ("Now the sun will shine/And we'll be just fine/Now we have got the science of mind"), Hubbard turns his hypotheses into a full-blown religion.

Here, finally, some opponents speak up: a Hawaiian accuses the church of preying on the weak and confused, a New Yorker notes that Hubbard charges exorbitant fees for its programs, and a Buddhist monk insists that there are well-documented cases wherein Scientologists committed suicide because of church practices. But Hubbard shakes off the criticism — "What are a few deaths compared to the millions we have saved?" — and soon we're learning more about Hubbard's techniques in getting people "clear."

There are some truly kooky revelations — most prominently, Hubbard's conviction that alien souls from another galaxy have come to inhabit our human bodies — and a trial in which Hubbard is quoted as saying (in the Reader's Digest) that "if a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion." But then TV and movie stars testify in Hubbard's favor (the sight of Parks as Kirstie Alley gorging herself on KFC chicken is probably the funniest thing in the play) and all sing Hubbard's praises one last, joyous time. We leave the theater persuaded that our doubts are probably justified, but not quite sure why a more decisive skewering wasn't attempted.

Still, the experience is (strangely) pleasant. Todd Olson's staging is all about holiday cheer and smiling faces, and all six actors treat the Pageant with boisterous good humor and engaging silliness. Among the singers, it's only Porter's voice that really stands out, and that only for a few moments, but a certain amateurishness in the music actually contributes to the comedy's fun.

Still, what's it all about? Why meet the Scientology monolith with the gloves off for so much of the time? If this is satire, it's bizarrely flattering. And if it's not satire, what is it?

There are lots of mysteries surrounding this religion and its founder. And with this weirdly courteous Pageant there's one mystery more.

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