End times 

Onstage Atlanta sends religion through hoops with Illuminati

Hard to believe it's been two decades since the world began coming to an end. In 1981, Atlanta's Southern Theatre Conspiracy staged the first performance of Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends (A Final Evening With the Illuminati), a two-man satire starring writers Eddie Levi Lee and Larry Larson. The script has since seen several revisions, but Onstage Atlanta is currently staging the play's 20th anniversary production, directed by Marc Gowan, a former member of Southern Theatre Conspiracy.

Just as the title doesn't fit easily on a marquee, Illuminati doesn't easily fit in a genre. It's mostly a darkly comic spoof of religion, observing the deranged Rev. Eddie (Patrick Wood) and his hunchbacked sidekick Brother Lawrence (Chris Williams) delivering a religious service in a post-apocalyptic America. Onstage Atlanta doesn't always do justice to Illuminati's manic sense of humor or encompass its dark vision, but it does offer an unusual and often funny glimpse at religious fervor and abnormal psychology.

Hysterically unqualified to be a man of the cloth, the Rev. Eddie is a pill-popping paranoiac in red long johns who hears voices and fears the secret society known as the Illuminati. He and Brother Lawrence make a kind of Laurel and Hardy team, as the well-meaning hunchback tries to keep the abusive Reverend going, despite his own infirmities and speech impediments. We learn few details about the play's bleak setting, except that it's subject to frequent nerve-gassings.

In the Reverend's bunker-like quarters, we see them prepare the Reverend's new sermon -- "Life is like a basketball game" -- and discuss the religious viability of suffering and dream-visions. We also see the Reverend in the pulpit, where he frequently interrupts his preaching to berate the audience for the words he imagines hearing. With Brother Lawrence sitting in the audience, the church scenes frequently involve audience participation, from a responsive reading to the passing of the collection plate. When the Reverend collapses, a guy in the front row is enlisted to drag him to his bed and "Make sure he doesn't swallow his tongue -- again."

A sizable actor with a shaved head, Wood alternately looks like Col. Kurtz and Curly Howard when in the throes of his dementia, while Williams makes Lawrence an endearing innocent who conveys a faith that stands outside organized religion. They eagerly go where Lee and Larson's antic script leads them, from knockabout slapstick to dogmatic skepticism.

At times the Reverend is seized with visions, which play out like straight- forward sketch comedy: Wood and Williams crooning a country-style song "Jesus is a Lutheran"; Williams as a good old boy being interviewed for sainthood; Wood as a swishy St. Paul coming up with the New Testament's restrictions on women. But as presented, the device has problems. The blackouts that give the actors time to change costumes are accompanied by doleful Gregorian chants, and the choppy structure and gloomy tone work against the play's comedic pacing.

Illuminati no doubt had greater urgency during the decade of its conception and premiere, as the 1980s featured the rise of the Moral Majority and a host of televangelist scandals. Since then, religion seems like a less pressing target, taking a little of the starch from the play's collar (so too with Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All For You).

While Illuminati doesn't always score, its everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to weird theatrics frequently pays off. At the beginning of Act Two, Hollywood Bible Epic music booms as the Reverend enters bearing a cross with a basketball hoop attached, a sight gag that pays off with a climactic roundball match against Death itself (think Ingmar Bergman meets Air Jordan). It may be the end of the world as we know it, but Illuminati feels fine.

Some Things You Need to Know Before the World Ends (A Final Evening With the Illuminati plays through Nov. 24 at the 14th Street Playhouse, Stage 3, at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. $15-18. 404-897-1802. www.onstageatlanta.com.

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