Rock Baptist of Houston, setting for David Rambo's trenchant comedy God's Man in Texas now at Theatre Three, isn't so much a place of worship as a stained-glassed theme park. Inside the fictional "largest Baptist church in the world" are restaurants, snack bars, a bowling alley and gym, dinner theater, eight-screen movieplex, bookstore, gift shop, day-care center and a pair of swimming pools. "In the pool on Saturday, in the pew on Sunday," boasts the church's 81-year-old patriarch, the much-beloved pastor Dr. Philip Gottschall.
Crowding the pools and the pews of Rock Baptist are the who's who of Houston: oil titans, society dames, "a converted Sakowitz" and several ex-presidents, not including backslider Bill Clinton, who, Gottschall snorts, "wouldn't be well-received." The church's adult Sunday school membership is more exclusive than a country club's. And the TV ministry is the No. 1 hit on Christian cable.
It's fundamentalist heaven, except for one little prob. The aging Dr. Gottschall (pronounced "God's-call") is only the third pastor in the Rock's 110-year history, and the forward-thinking board of directors is getting itchy to boost membership among the younger demos.
God's Man in Texas
Through April 21; 214-871-3300
Enter slim, handsome Dr. Jeremiah Mears, leader of a growing San Antonio congregation and preacher of erudite sermons sprinkled with references to Greek. He's the latest in a monthly series of "pastors on parade" at Rock Baptist, all making Sunday-night appearances to audition for the role of successor to the throne. Mears wants the job badly, for its generous perks and to fill a hollow place in his own soul.
But the elder preacher isn't quite ready to give up his keys to the kingdom. And therein lies the conflict in this cleverly written, surprisingly touching two-act play, whose every line snaps with Bible Belt authenticity.
In his three-piece ice-cream suit, Gottschall, played with rafter-shaking, Bible-waving fervor by Hugh Feagin, bears an obvious resemblance to one of Dallas' most revered religious figures, a certain recently deceased emperor of several of God's little downtown tax-free acres. Rambo has insisted that his leading character is an amalgam of several larger-than-life Southern evangelists, but snowy-haired, florid-faced Gottschall sure ain't Billy Graham or Pat Robertson.
The Jeremiah Mears character (played with a sexy flair by Bill Jenkins) does seem to be less specific, combining the attributes of a few once-loved but troubled Texas pulpit-pounders of the 1980s. Names like Billy Weber, Larry Lea and Joel Gregory come to mind.
In Act 1 the battle for the church's top billing begins when Mears turns out to be a big hit in his Rock tryout. In church lingo "his numbers are good," meaning his altar calls recruit hundreds of newbies to the flock and the collection plates add up to five figures. As the spotlight shifts to the younger man, Gottschall's pride gets bruised. Soon the two men of God are going at it in an ungodly clash of egos and wills that, despite its heightened satirical tone, is clearly grounded in playwright Rambo's serious knowledge of the ugly inner workings of big-biz religion.
"This is the Baptist Super Bowl!" bellows Gottschall. And he's Vince Lombardi, not about to cede control of his winning team. "I'm not going," Gottschall roars at the end of a rousing sermon, "until it's Gaaaaaaaawd's time!"
Which can't come too soon for Mears. Instead of inheriting the starring spot at the heavily attended, broadcast-worthy 10 a.m. services, Mears finds himself relegated to lesser tasks like blessing new bowling lanes and offering the benediction at the weight-loss group's "Jell-O Jubilee." His faith sorely tested by the letdown, Mears also wrestles with being abandoned by Gottschall as a father figure, his own dad having disappeared while street preaching in New Orleans decades before.
Caught as a go-between to the two angry ministers is simple-minded Hugo Taney (Terry Dobson), a twangy church techie whose life revolves around the Rock. A reformed addict, Taney confesses to Mears that "I wasn't all that smart before I started doing drugs." Now his main job is wiring up the preachers with bodymikes backstage, but he's also wired into whatever's being said about anyone in any corner of the huge church complex.
As the Gomer Pyle of this mega-church, Taney is both a source of gossip and a fountain of basic common sense. His goofy presence keeps the high-minded pastors down to earth. "You're as jumpy as a baby Chihuahua," Taney tells Mears just before the young minister delivers his first big sermon.
Rambo's knack for funny, down-home Texan turns of phrase and the cast's deft handling of the more pious stretches of dialogue actually keep God's Man in Texas from being overly preachy. Each scene ends with one of the ministers ascending to a pulpit to deliver a fiery Old Testament message, but the sermonettes are brief and beautifully written and inspirational enough to elicit an "Amen!" or two if the predominantly blue-haired Theatre Three audience weren't so stodgy.
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The playwright also drops in a few delightfully juicy revelations about the show-bizzy tricks only insiders know about. "Sugar sticks" are preachers' standbys, those tried-and-true homilies that never fail to get head-nods from the crowd. The "fidget factor" is how ministers measure their own performance. If the congregation squirms like a box of live bait, the sermon is a flop. And "spiking the call" means sending ringers up to the altar rail to be "saved" again, just in case not enough new believers come to Jesus on cue (can't let the cameras catch a sparse turnout).
That's good stuff. And so's this whole production, right down to the stagehands decked out in starched choir robes for their set-moving chores. Nice set, too, by Harland Wright, whose simple design suggests the tacky majesty of the brand of church that contains its own shopping mall and America's largest pipe organ.
Best of all in God's Man are the two men in the leading roles. Feagin and Jenkins give terrific performances, bringing believably evangelical verve to their interpretations of two very different types of preachers. They don't hoke it up, and they don't upstage one another in the showier moments. They remain faithful to the material without commenting on it acting-wise, and they have heaps of energy, keeping the pace of the show popping like a fireworks display.
What you've got here are fine actors, a darn fine play and a little bit of the Good Book thrown in for good measure. And in the words of one much-loved, media-savvy modern-day prophet, "That's a good thing."