When Joseph Smith published his text about the Latter Day Saints in 1830, he was, like most mad men, convinced of his various truths, chief among them that God (or, as Smith called him, Moroni) was American. As legend has it, Smith found eleven plates that had the “appearance of gold,” buried near his home in Wayne County, New York. These plates were transcribed, and constitute the bulk of The Book of Mormon. I’m not entirely sure where Wayne County is, nor what the Book of Mormon purports to teach, other than equal parts blind faith and old fashioned repression, but I’m fairly certain of the various impulses that drove Smith to help create a religion: the arrival myth. Like most Americans, Smith was from some place, and wanted to get some place else. That is, he wanted to transcend the world as he knew it, and move into other atmospheres, preaching what he knew. He wanted the world to know not only his religion, but, just as importantly, the monumental drive and egotism behind it. On the face of it, I don’t imagine any of this was lost on Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the complicated, original, musical, “The Book of Mormon,” (at the Eugene O’Neill). And while Smith makes several appearances in the show, his peculiar brand of American optimism–the glow of willed blindness–permeates the piece throughout. As the straight white male protagonists move from the banality of Utah to a kind of banal “exoticism,” we are moved less by the Mormons efforts to convert the rightfully disgruntled “natives” once they arrive. than the fiction of brittle hope the Elders ultimately have a hard time trying to swallow themselves.That’s the show’s pathos, and the protagonists struggle: to instill hope in a world filled with lies–even those they perpetuate themselves. Elder Cunningham (the brilliant Josh Gad; some clever producer should develop a show with him about Zero Mostel, or Oscar Levant) and his reluctant partner, Elder Price (the athletic Andrew Rannells) represent opposite sides of the faith spectrum; that is, their respective ecclesiastical glow projects different hues. Cunningham is not above lying to shape a narrative that is kinder to his much maligned self, while Price is committed to his belief that life can be as beautiful and unreal as it seems in the text Joseph Smith helped popularize, and it’s called Orlando. Aside from Parker and Stone’s language, the actors project their belief in the arrival myth–things are always better somewhere else–through their physicality, which lurches forward, and tap dances on a cloud of possibility, especially when confronted by certain facts, like the world’s cynicism about most things, including belief, and it’s upshot: love, and the blind faith one must exercise to move from one part of the world to the next.
– May 22, 2011