The Actor, in the Church, with the Fundraising Basket

| 22 Oct 2014 | 10:54

Upper West Side A man recently knocked on the newly refurbished, ornate wooden doors at the 4th Universalist Society church on Central Park West, and was met by a small huddle which included a maid in a skimpy French outfit, a man gripping tightly to a candlestick and a lot of suspicious looks. “Good evening. Have any of you given any thought to the Kingdom of Heaven?” the man ventured. “Go away,” another said. “Our lives are already in danger.” This was the first full run-through of a new production of “Clue,” based on the ubiquitous board game and 1980s cult-classic film. It is a full dinner-theater production that runs for two weekends in mid-October and kicks off the 4th Universalist’s campaign to raise a million dollars to repair its roof. This is the congregation’s biggest fundraising campaign since the 1980s, when the 19th-century building was saved through an outpouring of community support. Now, 30 years later, the roof is in need or repair, and they’re borrowing a slice of the 1980s to kick it off. The congregation has recently staged the Vagina Monologues and the Laramie Project, two challenging plays that match the church’s ethos of serving as a “beacon of liberal religion on the Upper West Side.” “We are the only church that hosts the ‘Vagina Monologues,’” said one of Clue’s co-directors, Erin Bigelow, who is also a member of the church. “So whenever anyone says I can’t believe we are doing that in a church, I say it’s not that kind of church.” So even though a play with multiple bludgeonings, strangulations and knifings might not be well received at other churches — no matter how close to Halloween it opens — Bigelow chose the play because she wanted to do something a bit lighter. And because the movie is popular, a number of professional actors and working comedians volunteered to take part in a rehearsal process that stretched over several months. Peter Coleman, 29, the actor who plays the character Mr. Wadsworth, is one such dedicated fan and working actor, who says he has performed in 40 states. He rented the movie from Blockbuster over and over again as a kid and now shows it to friends if he learns they haven’t seen it. So when Coleman found out from an actress that he had missed the auditions, he was forlorn. “I told her if some great tragedy should befall your Wadsworth, you let me know,” Coleman said, who later dropped and broke a cocktail glass when he found out the good news that the part was indeed open. “Well he didn’t die or anything, he just had to drop out.” Before the show, the audience will eat dinner that has been donated by local restaurants, served by waiters who will later play cops, and then, just as the sky becomes totally dark, an actress will enter the gothic hall and the death and mystery will begin. Stage lights and sometimes just flashlights will point the audience toward different areas of the church where the action is happening. “No one will be able to watch the entire show facing forward,” Bigelow said. “And the cast is also going to play with the audience a little as they move around in the space, especially when they are searching for bodies and guns.” “There may be a moment where I turn to someone and say, ‘Do you think this even possible?’ Or ‘I’m just exhausted, are you?” said Lorie Barber, who is playing Mrs. White, a character who murders all her husbands. In addition to nostalgia for the original, the play may benefit from the recent surge of popularity in police procedurals and murder mysteries, such as CSI and Law and Order. “Clue” both makes fun of and depends on the suspense of its modern counterparts on Netflix, according to Bigelow. Not the case in depictions of murder-mystery from just thirty years ago. “People are just falling over and there is absolutely no care for fingerprints and DNA and all the things we care about when there is a murder today,” Bigelow said. The production also benefits from active and eager parishioners. “I asked for 38 dozen brownies to be baked because dessert will be brownie a la mode,” Bigelow said. “Everyone is so excited to showcase their own brownie recipe.” The Fourth Universalist Society’s building on 76th Street and Central Park West is unique among Unitarian Universalists, according to Rev. Susan Milnor: typically their sect uses simple New England meeting houses favored by the puritan sects they grew out of. “We’ve had people say it must’ve been a cathedral: it wasn’t,” said Sheila Powers, the head administrator at the church, who added that membership has included Lou Gherig, P.T. Barnum and, one of its biggest supporters, Andrew Carnegie. “It was built in 1895 by Universalists and this is what they wanted at the time.” Although the church space is often rented out for TV productions, Fashion Week and frequent weddings, it’s not enough to cover the big, long-term capital expenses of the historically landmarked space. “Even though the church is huge and gorgeous, we only have 115 members and these members come from all over New York,” Bigelow said. “That’s one of the things I love about the community: we’re from all different socioeconomic backgrounds.” A recent sermon used a Sikh poem and a story of Christian redemption to explain the meaning of the Jewish High Holidays. “We have everyone from atheists to agnostics, to people who have some belief in the theist philosophy,” said Powers. “It’s an absolutely complete, all-encompassing, accepting belief system.” But the inclusiveness of the church also meant that Bigelow had to alter the original script to eliminate some jokes. “We understand how the jokes were written as funny in 1985, but they are no longer funny in 2014,” said Bigelow. “This caused a little bit of controversy in the cast, but you know what, we win. It’s not that kind of church but it does have to be all-inclusive.” “So when people ask, ‘Did you change the ending?’ Kind of, a little bit,” said Erica Ruff, who is co-directing with Bigelow. Although the villain of the church’s struggles may not be as exciting as the villain of the play, the directors were quick to call out the culprit. “It’s father time, with no money, in the roof,” Ruff said.