|September 2, 2004
Theater Section - Los Angeles Times
The horns of a dilemma
However you look at it, the road to "Hollywood Hell House" is paved with conflicting intentions.
By Scott Sandell, Times Staff Writer
The Rev. Keenan Roberts looked surprisingly calm for a playwright on opening night â€ especially one who had traveled from Denver to see how Hollywood had hijacked his work.
"What they're doing is not my material," he said, standing in the parking lot of the Steve Allen Theater on Saturday. He smiled, though he was not exactly amused.
Nearby, industry types and other hipsters smoked and chatted about their "projects" as they waited to see "Hell House," the original version of which Roberts wrote in the early '90s. His gory haunted house-morality play aims to show that abortion, homosexuality and drugs will result in eternal damnation.
On his church's website, he bills it as "the most 'in-your-face, high-flyin', no denyin', death-defyin', Satan-be-cryin', keep-ya-from-fryin', theatrical stylin', no holds barred, cutting-edge evangelism tool of the new millennium," and he sells $299 kits so that ministries can stage it.
Only this production, which has attracted star comedians and has been rechristened as "Hollywood Hell House," is trying to prove his evangelical assertions to be absurd.
"The real 'Hell House' is inspired theater, with an incredible message. We call it 'where reality meets eternity,' " Roberts said. "This is 'where comedy goes wherever it goes.' "
"The real comedy comes from the material itself," countered Jill Soloway, a television writer and one of four producers for the Hollywood staging. "One of the things I loved about it is the pure conceptualism; it's real performance art."
However you see it, the road to "Hollywood Hell House" is paved with conflicting intentions.
Its presenters â€ a comedy collective called the Youth Group and the Center for Inquiry-West, which promotes "reason, science and freedom of inquiry" â€ want to skewer fundamentalism. To do so, they bought one of Roberts' kits and snagged some big names for the rotating cast of more than 120. On opening night, Bill Maher portrayed the suave, tuxedo-clad Devil, and Andy Richter played Jesus on a fuzzy baby-blue cross. Others slated to perform include Richard Belzer, Penn Jillette and Sarah Silverman.
An amalgamation of Roberts' script and a Texas "Hell House" featured in a documentary, "Hollywood Hell House" unfolds over about 45 minutes in scenarios that include a graphic abortion, a gay man dying of AIDS and a suicide by handgun that spatters "blood" on the audience. Members of the audience walk from room to room in groups of 17 to view each scene. As they did so Saturday, a few nursed bottles of Heineken or Amstel Light; many giggled, bit their fingernails or covered their faces with their hands.
"We want people to have the gross-out laugh and the ohmigod laugh," Soloway said. "To be laughing and horrified that this is something people take seriously."
The play ends with a recorded plea from Jesus (actually Roberts' voice, taken from the kit's soundtrack CD), at which point the audience is led down Hollywood Boulevard into a "fellowship room." There, a large man in drag and an enormous red beehive welcomes visitors to a revival meeting, with free punch, doughnut holes, live bands, dancing "Jesus freaks," a voter registration table, a Pin the Sin on Jesus game and $15 T-shirts that say "Jesus [Hearts] Hollywood Hell House."
On Saturday, it seemed that "Hollywood Hell House" was largely preaching to the choir. Some attendees were friends of the actors or affiliated with the Center for Inquiry-West. One man wore a shirt that read "Christianity is stupid." (Organizers emphasize that they intend the play as a critique of fundamentalism, not of Christianity or religion.) There were no visible protesters. On the sidelines, scribbling notes, was a smattering of journalists; the Dallas Morning News had even flown out its religion reporter.
Outside the fellowship room, theatergoers John Bowie, Jamie Denbo and Will Berson were debating the message that "Hollywood Hell House" sends. (Naturally, Bowie and Denbo are local actors, and Berson has written for the TV show "Scrubs.") Though all three started by saying they had enjoyed it, Berson was troubled.
"It's still presenting something bad, even though it's clearly a bunch of Hollywood liberals winking at it," Berson said. "I don't think people would be saying, 'Let's remake Leni Riefenstahl films for laughs.' "
Roberts, senior pastor at Destiny Church of the Assemblies of God in the Denver suburb of Broomfield, Colo., also has mixed feelings, albeit for different reasons. On the one hand, "it's an incredible injustice," he said of the spoof. "There are bits of my script laced throughout; probably the abortion scene is closest to mine," Roberts added. "In a city where authorship, writing and representation of material are so important, you'd think it would be viewed as a cardinal sin to do what they have done."
On the other hand, he hopes that the publicity will further his mission. "Just the fact that they're doing this, regardless of how they're doing it, will result in production opportunities from churches around the country."
Roberts also ventured that Hollywood audiences might even come to see his viewpoint on some issues in "Hell House." "It might hit them a day, a week, a year later," he said.
And if that were to happen, producer Soloway says, "I think that's OK."
In fact, at evening's end, the pastor and the producers put aside their
differences and hung out together at Tangier in Los Feliz till closing
time. The producers had picked the spot and invited Roberts. He didn't
even object when they told him that the restaurant's phone number begins
with the digits 666.