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Once A Gateway Into Scientology, Beverly Hills Playhouse Criticizes Church In 'Disconnection'
For about a quarter of a century, celebrated director and acting teacher Milton Katselas's Beverly Hills Playhouse offered a point of introduction between aspiring TV and film stars and the Church of Scientology, of which Katselas was a member. According to the much-lauded 2013 Scientology exposé Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief by Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright, Katselas "was a vital link to the Hollywood celebrity machine that Scientology depended upon" and many performing arts professionals came to the Church through the BH Playhouse company he owned and ran.
When Katselas died in 2008, his protégé Allen Barton, a playwright and classical pianist, took ownership of the BH Playhouse, and two of his plays have recently premiered there to favorable notices. Barton was also a Scientologist for several years, but he became disenchanted when Katselas fell out of favor with the Church about a decade ago. After he spoke with Wright and was directly quoted in Going Clear, Barton has said in a recent interview, he was "declared" a "Suppressive Person" and subjected to Scientology's policy of "disconnection," requiring Church members to sever all contact with him. Even Barton's "cherished" 90-year-old piano teacher and mentor Mario Feninger was compelled to shun him and to reject the extra financial assistance that Barton had been providing him in his old age.
The first act of Barton's new, essentially anti-Scientology play Disconnection, which opened this weekend at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, revolves around Landon (played by Jay Huguley the night we attended), once a promising young classical pianist and now a successful attorney in his 40s seeking to rediscover his musical chops. A contact in their mutual Church—which goes unnamed throughout the play—refers him to the insightful elderly piano teacher Michel (Dennis Nollette), who provides not only musical instruction but also informal life crisis counseling to Landon (who reveals that in a moment of careless driving four years earlier, he got into a car accident that killed his wife).
Landon's 16 year-old daughter Tess (Carter Scott) joined the Church after their family tragedy and has since risen through the organization's hierarchy into a position as aide-de-camp to its Chairman, a "blunt instrument" of a man modeled on Scientology leader David Miscavige. Disconnected from her father, Tess has not communicated with him even once during that whole time. Still, once she discovers she's gotten pregnant, in violation of the rules for the Chairman's staffers, Tess tries in vain to convince her husband (Luke Cook) to abandon their life of servitude to the Church, but he insists he has to stay where he is and devote "a billion years to fight for this planet and fucking win!"
Meanwhile, just before the play's intermission, we learn, too, that Landon has become professionally involved in a lawsuit against the Church involving the mysterious death of a member named Lisa McFadden (obviously echoing the real-life suit filed against the Church of Scientology following the 1995 death of member Lisa McPherson). As a result of this perceived betrayal, Michel sadly informs Landon that in order to remain in "good standing for the next life," he also has to disconnect, and to spurn much-needed checks, from his devoted pupil for the rest of this one.
After all these dramatic events, Disconnection takes a disjointed turn in the second act, and Tess is the only one of those four original characters who makes a substantial reappearance. (Another one silently returns in the play's final moments, while a third also steps out on stage for no discernible reason other than director Joel Polis's evident recognition that we may have remained curious about what happened to him.) Rather than pick up where we left off, Barton gives us a long end-of-life monologue from the Church's founder, an L. Ron Hubbard stand-in named Oldman, powerfully delivered by actor Robert Hughes. Then we meet the Chairman himself (Everette Wallin), a menacing sociopath who browbeats Tessa so severely that she has little choice but to take decisive action in response.
Barton's criticism of Scientology in Disconnection has nothing to do with its theology (no snarky references here to thetans or Xenu) or its celebrity promoters (no snarky allusions to Tom Cruise or John Travolta, either). His primary accusations concern the Church's mistreatment of its own adherents and its policy of enforced separation of members from any friends or family who try to challenge its authority or credibility. (The Church of Scientology itself, for the record, denies that "disconnection" necessarily demands this extreme alienation.) Scenes at the beginning and end of the play also suggest that the culture of Scientology may be more enticing to a susceptible person in a vulnerable position than most people recognize: "Don't be too comfortable in your judgment," one character directly advises the audience. "More of you would sign on than you think—trust me."
Premiering just as Alex Gibney's new documentary based on Going Clear receives accolades at the Sundance Film Festival, Disconnection rides in on a wave of critical examinations of the Church and its activities. Thanks in large part to a very strong cast, Disconnection merits a look as well. It's certainly not what anyone would have ever expected to see at the Beverly Hills Playhouse back in Katselas's heyday.
Disconnection plays Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings through March 1 (no performances on Super Bowl and Oscar Sundays). Full-price tickets $33 and $38 ($22 and $26 for seniors, $10 and $15 for college students, free for high school students). Discount tickets to some performances $13.50-$21.75 on Goldstar, $19 and $21 on lastagetix