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Rob Weinert-KendtMay 30, 2011

Pain is at the root of most humor, from the banana-peel slip to “Springtime for Hitler.” And as a crop of new shows on Broadway proves, misery may love company, but its best friend is comedy. In “The Mother*** With the Hat,” “The Book of Mormon” and “Good People,” the depths of human despair are the wellsprings of laughter, albeit occasionally the sort of laughter that is nearly indistinguishable from gasping shock or disbelief. And in the extraordinary British import “War Horse,” horror is transmuted not so much into comedy as into ripe, old-fashioned melodrama—trauma as entertainment value.

The season’s runaway hit is, a little improbably, the exuberantly profane The Book of Mormon. The show’s pervasive crudeness is no surprise, given that two of its creators are Trey Parker and Matt Stone (who together created “South Park”). Nor is its high level of musical-theater craft unexpected, given that its third co-author is Robert Lopez, the co-composer/lyricist of “Avenue Q,” and that its director/choreographer is the multitalented Casey Nicholaw of “Drowsy Chaperone” fame. What is startling about this poppy fable, in which two naïve Mormon missionaries ply their all-American religion in war- and disease-ravaged Uganda, is how sweetly sympathetic, even substantive, it turns out to be.

To be sure, the authors are clearly nonbelievers who chose the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a fat satirical target because, as a relatively young, awkward religion, Mormonism is still working out some kinks in real time (like the group’s 1978 decision to reverse a ban on African-American priests). What better way to cast doubt-by-association on all religious authority and revelation?

But if “The Book of Mormon” offered only gleeful blasphemy toward a little-understood faith, it would be a poor excuse for a show, let alone a hit. Instead, the authors have done their homework and come up with a sincerely loving cartoon portrait of young Mormon missionaries as well-intentioned innocents, cast adrift like a small flotilla of Candides into a vicious, cynical world that rattles not only their particular faith but faith in any kind of divine providence.

The show’s turning point comes when in a last-ditch attempt to make Joseph Smith’s prophecies relate to the unspeakably bleak lives of his African audience, a nerdy missionary named Arnold (the irresistible Josh Gad) ad-libs a kind of pop-culture syncretism in which Brigham Young and his fellow church fathers fought off dysentery, AIDS and genital mutilation with the assistance not only of angels and frogs but of hobbits and Ewoks.

Since “The Book of Mormon” views religious faith as magical thinking that somehow (magically?) makes us kinder to each other, Arnold’s “revision” is considered just as valid as Joseph Smith’s prophecy—a glib gloss on theology, to put it mildly. But Parker, Stone and Lopez also understand that doubt is not faith’s acid but its fuel. In one lightly mocking moment based on the annual pageant performed at Hill Cumorah, near Palmyra, N.Y., in July, a dying Joseph Smith realizes that while no one will be able to prove the truth of his golden plates, a nonempirical faith may be the point. As he sings to God: “They’ll have to believe it just cuz/ Oh, I guess that’s kind of what you’re going for.”

At first glance, faith would not seem to be a driving impulse for the addicted and/or otherwise damaged characters in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s gritty urban comedy The Mother*** With the Hat. Even the show’s resident A.A. evangelizer, Ralph (played crisply by Chris Rock), barely mentions the program’s well-known “higher power.” In fact, as Ralph makes all too clear in the course of the play, getting clean does not give him the moral high ground, nor would he even want to claim it. Ralph delivers this unwelcome news to his faltering 12-step sponsee, Jackie (the gentle giant Bobby Cannavale), whose most punishing addiction is not to any particular drug or drink but to the mercurial Veronica (a fierce, almost feral Elizabeth Rodriguez).

Jackie’s mulish persistence in loving his longtime sweetheart—who in popular parlance is a “hot mess,” with no connotation of that phrase exempted—drives him to violent, ultimately self-defeating extremes. That dogged faithfulness is also a clue to Guirgis’s real project here: to get at the huge, unavoidable cost of believing, of loyalty, of conscience. To have a heart in this world is to have a heart broken. But does Jackie—or Guirgis, or any of us—want to live any other way? As he has shown before, Guirgis is better at evoking character and at grappling with profound themes in vivid, spiky contemporary language than at shaping an entirely satisfying play. “Hat” is no exception. But under Anna D. Shapiro’s sharp direction, it is a tight little fist of a show with plenty of punch.

Virtue is also its own punishment in David Lindsay-Abaire’s subtler, ultimately more satisfying Good People. The title is a South Boston idiom that means essentially “all right,” as in, “He’s good people.” But Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole,” “Fuddy Meers”) fully intends, and mostly achieves, a more encompassing inquiry into our native complacency. The play investigates the American assumption that, no matter the privileges that cordon off one class from another in our increasingly unequal economy, we all basically mean well: We are all in this together, and none of us are really bad persons, after all, are we?

This tale of an unemployed, stressed-out single mom from “Southie,” Margaret (Frances McDormand), builds to a bravura face-off in the posh Chestnut Hill home of her old neighborhood flame, Mike (Tate Donovan), who left Southie far behind and is now a successful endocrinologist. Complicating this potentially schematic class conflict is Mike’s younger, blue-blooded African-American wife Kate (Renee Elise Goldsberry), who is in every respect his social superior, not to mention Margaret’s. This last socioeconomic wrinkle allays our fears that Lindsay-Abaire has stacked the deck entirely in favor of poor, working-class Margaret over wealthy, roots-forgotten Mike. Though Mike ultimately comes off as an entitled, hypocritical jerk, Kate’s peppery clarity keeps throwing this easy moral equation off balance. The result is the season’s most penetrating, not to mention disarmingly funny, play.

You will hear more tears than laughter at War Horse, the full-tilt epic extravaganza from London’s National Theatre, now playing at Lincoln Center. And I do mean you will hear the tears. The sobbing in the theater is audible at this openly sentimental story of a boy and his beloved horse suffering the depredations of World War I. That the show has already been turned into a Spielberg movie (watch for it in December) makes perfect sense; with its stirring underscoring and shameless manipulation of children and animals in jeopardy, it already feels Spielbergian.

But there is one key difference between the play and the film, and it makes all the difference: The “horses” here are stirring, galloping, big-as-life contraptions from South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. In fact, the show’s most moving sections are not the story’s nail-biting near-deaths and weepy reunions but its pure moments of stage physics, in which our main horse hero, Joey, is harnessed first to a plow and later to a mud-bound cannon in the midst of battle. This unreal horse seems to wheeze and heave under these man-made burdens, and we somehow feel that we are breathing and suffering along with him. Short of hauling us all in a cart behind him, Joey—and this extraordinary theatrical event—could not move us more.

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