Less than two years ago, I saw the world premiere of Jane Martin’s Anton in Show Business at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky. I bring it up only because Humana is, after all, the country’s preeminent new plays festival: What Sundance is to independent film, the Humana Festival is to theater.

I also bring it up because the current production at Theater in the Park is better than the one I saw in Louisville in March 2000.

A show biz comedy that takes place backstage, on stage and in the mezzanine before it’s over, Anton casts a finely jaded eye on the theater and its many present discontents. It chronicles an entirely too probable, out-of-town, name-based vanity production of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, one that’s been dreamed up to give Holly, a sexy and ruthlessly pragmatic television starlet, some desperately needed stage credibility–not to mention a shot at films where she gets to leave her clothes on for a change.

Since Holly’s got the backing, Holly pulls the strings. She bonds with two actors at auditions: Lisabette, a theatrical naïf who teaches third grade in Texas, and Casey, a more than slightly bitter stage veteran destined to be typecast as oldest sister, Olga. Together, the three venture from the heart of New York’s theater district to the forbidden cultural wastelands of San Antonio.

As in all good odysseys, our heroines encounter a striking array of monsters along the way. Culture vultures of varying stripes and sexual orientations, “sensitive” producers, insufferable directors, and odious corporate philanthropists with more than one agenda–these and others get their comeuppance during this addled pilgrims’ progress. For the record, Martin also skewers earnest critics, mindless multiculturalism, postmodernism, Stanford, Harvard and Yale–and almost everything else that’s plagued American theater in the past 20 years.

For all this, though, the original take in Louisville never lost an irritating air of smugness and privilege, or an overweening sense of joking to the choir. Perhaps conflict of interest seeped in, or professional courtesy. In either case, on its brief outing from New York, Professional Theater satirized Professional Theater–and in the process, managed to commit anew a number of the crimes Martin charged it with in the first place.

In Louisville, actors seemed more interested in acting like professionals than acting like dramatic characters–a malady observed in this area from time to time. The Humana production might as well have posted a sign above the theater doors that read “Experts Only.” It’s an attitude that hasn’t killed live theater yet–but not for lack of trying.

Thankfully, director Eric Woodall remembered to craft a version for the rest of us in this Theater in the Park production. He zeroes in on the myriad absurdities and con games of this craft, but maintains a tight connection to its heart. He does so with considerable help.

Nanci Burrows convinces here as Casey, the “mother courage” of our fictive company, while Yolanda Batts does yeoman’s work in a series of memorable supporting roles. She blusters with righteous rage as militant director Andwyneth, and laughs her way through the character of Don Blounts, a corporate philanthropist given to more than usually candid commentary on why corporations actually fund the arts. Megan Day similarly scores, first as Ralph, a gay British director, and then as his preferable counterpart, Wikewich, an aging Polish director running out of time in which to realize the Chekhov of his dreams.

As Shawn Stewart-Larson’s all but painted-on costume proves once more that sex sells, and an exuberant Kimberly B. Wood practically prances through her role as Holly, a starlet who’s just plain folks–up until the microsecond that her needs are no longer being addressed. Wood could sharpen the character’s well-hidden manipulative edge–and the naked desperation that should drive her final scene. Liz Knight, though, brings the right mixture of fear, amazement and cautious hope as Lisabette, the guileless Texas beginner who, at least briefly, gets to fly with eagles.

Neither Martin’s script nor this production is flawless. The scripted in-house interaction reads as stagy as it ever was, and the aesthetic arguments do occasionally go arid. And on opening night, the audience had to wade through a 10-minute backstage sequence Woodall added on before we ever got to Page One of the script. Woodall should keep the scene; just start it–and finish it–while the audience is still being seated.

Lisabette gets the best monologues in the play; her character speaks most clearly some of the truest reasons why people ever pin their hopes on theater. Almost anyone who’s gone through a rehearsal process can recall a moment like the one when Lisabette wonders, “Could we be good? Really, really good?” And her memory of an ideal, childhood summer show that magically unites a community was enough to remind me of why I got into this business to begin with.

“It’s just people, you know … doing it and watching it,” she notes, “but I think everybody hopes that it might turn out to be something more than that. Like people buy a ticket to the lottery. Only this has more … heart to it.” We reach the same conclusion for this show, an open valentine to everyone who loves the theater.

Granted, it’s time we changed the questions we ask of religion. I’m just not sure that the questions I came up with during the opening night of The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told are necessarily the ones the author had in mind. The biggest one’s this: Why would playwright Paul Rudnick–or anyone else, at this point–really want to be called “the gay Neil Simon”? This well-intentioned rewrite of a couple of millennia of religious homophobia starts off charmingly enough with God a stage manager cueing the start of creation on designer Miyuki Su’s imaginative tributes to Michelangelo, O’Keefe, Warhol and Haring.

The problem is, once you start a story this big, you actually have to finish it. Rudnick bails out on the Bible at the end of act one, but not before the script bogs down in laborious theological reworkings that devolve into disappointing sketch comedy scenes: on the ark, in good ol’ Egypt, etc. In act two, urban sophisticates trade catty one-liners on Christmas Eve while waiting for Jane and Mabel, the First Lesbians, to give birth to the next messiah. David Harrell’s a good, if neurotic, host as Adam, while D. H. Johnson brings reserve to his helpmeet, Steve. Judy Long gives a robust reading of Jane, while Rasool J’Han gets in contact with her inner Stevie Nicks to portray Mabel. David Britt does what he can with a thankless Pharoah before sinking teeth into the role of anti-Santa. Andrea Maddox is wicked good as a strange gay-friendly Mormon at the party, while Richard Denton provides eye-candy as a disco-boy. But Julia Leggett gets the long end of the shtick as lesbian wheelchair Rabbi Sharon, who at last must Explain What It All Means. EndBlock

Contact Byron Woods at byron@indyweek.com