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Heaven help us 

Leap stumbles in its examination of faith

Leap, the Alliance Theatre's fuzzy look at matters of faith, sprang from a small group of theater professionals over the span of a year-and-a-half. The principal playwright is Jim Grimsley, but Leap evolved in monthly discussions of faith with Grimsley, director Susan Booth, Alliance literary manager Megan Monaghan, composer Michael Fauss, Metro Atlanta Arts & Culture Coalition Executive Director Bill Nigut and performers Tom Key, Adam McKnight, Rosemary Newcott and Carol Mitchell-Leon.

The final product leaves you feeling that one of those meetings would have been more enlightening and entertaining. As a stage play, Leap proves vague in intention and limp in effect. It's more about raising questions than providing answers, but even the queries lack urgency.

The onstage actors -- Key, Nigut, McKnight, Newcott and Mitchell-Leon -- primarily play themselves, so Leap has few characters and virtually no unifying story or drama. Instead, while Fauss plays original music, the cast leads the audience through an evening loosely patterned after a religious service. There are hymns, offerings, witnessing, responsive readings and evocations of weddings and funerals as the ensemble addresses how and why we believe in God. The 90-minute performance unfolds like an inoffensive, faith-based motivational seminar, performed on an imposing set that evokes an ancient temple.

The creative team avoids humorless preaching by including bits of comedy, and Leap's cleverest bit depicts a kind of musical chairs game. Key moves his chair to different parts of the stage until he's suddenly bathed in angelic light from above -- then the others try to muscle in on his religious experience. A song about a book of rules implicitly criticizes the Bible and oppressive creeds but spends more time joking about airport security protocols than making a definitive statement. When the cast holds up turkey bacon as a religious offering, it feels like the idea for a joke minus the punch line.

At times the play tweaks the self-centered nature of modern belief, particularly when the cast recites a legalistic prayer from a central congregation offering to worship God -- with certain guarantees and stipulations. The players chatter amiably about the nature of sin between recorded musings from God, like "A premise: sin is separation from God." (On opening night, Mayor Shirley Franklin provided the deity's voice.)

But Leap lacks grace, despite its sincerity. During the section on doubt, the audience responds with awkward lines like, "In God we trust/If God don't rust." The songs slide into New Age slop with lyrics such as "The faces of God have so many names/Why can't we see that they're all the same?" The tune "Invisible Hero" proves even more banal, though at least McKnight puts a little vocal oomph behind it.

What disappoints about Leap -- rather surprisingly, in a post-Sept. 11 world -- is how it avoids challenging topics. It doesn't mention the suicide bombers who give religious zeal a bad name, and it barely touches on the difficulty of believing in a God that permits random suffering. Instead, it addresses current events with fleeting, self-congratulatory references to topics such as gay marriage and evolution.

We connect best with Leap during the rare occasions when the players tell stories about themselves. Key recalls moments in his life when he felt the presence of the divine. Nigut anticipates his own death and speculates how his tattoo will fit in with the traditional Jewish funeral rite.

It's too bad Leap doesn't offer more examples of faith drawn from personal experience and fewer airy doodles. The players know that reason can't account for faith, but in crafting their theatrical exploration, they overthunk it.

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