Book of Mormon's blasphemous humor

The hottest ticket in town has big laughs — at the expense of many.

click to enlarge ELDER BROTHERS: The touring cast of Book of Mormon is nothing short of excellent. - Joan Marcus
Joan Marcus
ELDER BROTHERS: The touring cast of Book of Mormon is nothing short of excellent.

The Book of Mormon is funny, original, musically winning, visually spectacular, and brilliantly acted.

It’s also intolerant, blasphemous and racist.

The combination of these facts makes the musical hard to witness with anything like a single mind. It also makes this review hard to write.

Let’s be honest: Nobody is objective where religion is concerned. If you’re an atheist, the whole enterprise is baloney. But if you’re a Christian, there’s nothing ridiculous about Jesus walking on water, and if you’re Jewish, there’s nothing absurd about God appearing to Moses in a burning bush. If you’re a Hindu, there’s nothing silly about worshipping an elephant-headed deity, and if you’re a Pure Land Buddhist, there’s nothing ludicrous about believing that prayerful people will be reborn in a paradisiacal world. These beliefs are only laughable from the outside. From the inside, they’re truer than truth.

The Book of Mormon, standing outside its subject, wants us to revel in what it sees as the outlandishness of Mormonism. It introduces us to two believers, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, who are sent to Uganda to convert Africans to their faith. The two young elders are presented as callow and naïve, and the Ugandans are portrayed as ignorant, diseased, loudly impious, and, in some cases, warlike. The clash of these two cultures is supposed to overwhelm us with its humor, and on some occasions, it does. But our amusement comes at a price: We have to disrespect other humans and suppress our sense of their dignity. We have to feel so much more intelligent, so much more civilized than these oafs. We have to feel superior.

I’m not comfortable doing that. I’m not a Mormon, but I feel awkward being asked to laugh at Mormon doctrine. I’m not a Christian but I feel sympathy for Christian friends who might object to the physical depiction of Jesus in the play. And I’m not black, but I feel offended to see the Ugandan village presented as a grotesque carnival of childishness and error. I know that Book of Mormon is the hottest ticket in town, that Ben Brantley of the New York Times proclaimed it the “best musical of this century” and that I’m supposed to enjoy it without letting any tender-hearted feelings get in my way. But they do get in my way.

I’m not sorry they do.

More about the plot: the two young “elders” arrive in Uganda and find that the Mormon mission there has failed to baptize even one convert. Further, the area is wracked by AIDS and subject to the depredations of a “general” set on performing clitoral circumcision on helpless women. The hapless proselytizers make no progress until one of them, elder Cunningham, begins fabricating the most outrageous lies about what the religion’s holy book has to say on the subject of African problems. Then the gullible heathens rush to become Mormons. Unfortunately, the mission’s President, eager to reward his young deputies, comes to Uganda to see the changes for himself. When he discovers the travesty that his ambassadors have made of Mormonism, he’s ready to pull the plug on them all, missionaries and converts.

The acting and singing are universally excellent. As Elder Price, Mark Evans is an energetic believer, eager to induct Africans into the religion he cherishes and then sorely disillusioned when things refuse to go his way. Equally funny is Christopher John O’Neill as Elder Cunningham, a desperately needy nebbish poignantly in search of a best friend. As Nabulungi, the central female among the Ugandans, Dayna Jarae Dantzler is charming, and as the vicious, dangerous General, Derrick Williams is the perfect image of pitiless egoism. Casey Nicholaw’s choreography is preposterously delightful, and the book, music, and lyrics, by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone are always inventive and often surprising. Scott Pask’s scenic design is spectacular, especially in the African village. Ann Roth’s brilliant costumes, ranging from a Lion King parody to a dream of hell and its demons, are wonderfully clever. Directors Nicholaw and Parker create a kaleidoscope of comic action with their dozens of performers.

Problem is, all this talent is in the service of a patronizing vision. Certainly there are people who are angry at religion: These are the ones who will find The Book of Mormon satisfying and maybe even cathartic.

But if you cherish spiritual values and you respect, as I do, the efforts of believers to find the sense in our strange existence, I think you’ll be disturbed at this assault on one relatively small sect’s doctrines. Most of us are not Mormons; even so, it’s hard not to find this comedy insulting.

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