WITH THE UDMURTS, Defunkt Theatre tries to revive a winning combo with David Zellnik, playwright of their 2014 production of Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom.
Using a real-life pagan enclave in Russia, the Udmurts—represented in the play by Mrs. Huff (Jane Bement Geesman) and her tenant/Udmurt convert Nate (Samson Syharath)—the play manages to be about the Udmurt pagan tradition, post-Communist nostalgia, sexuality, economics, and, yes, the goddamn theater. I'm not saying plays about plays are never worthwhile, but the idea that the theater is a worthier form of religion is not implied in this one so much as explicitly stated in more than one absurdly dramatic monologue.
Between stretches of pretentious glad-handing, the script does offer many moments of intelligent, emotional writing. Almost all of them are via monologues from Nate, the adopted scion of a megachurch preacher, arriving in New York straight from Florida (and the closet).
Syharath plays Nate with charm and sympathy, but also intelligence—he never knows exactly what's going on, but he's not a total rube, either. He's lost not because he's gay or adopted or a preacher's son, but for the same reason everyone is: The world is confusing. Syharath can recall a drunken escapade at a Russian Orthodox church ("that skinny sky god... so gay, right?") or an adolescent sexual awakening with a real, credible fervor. Equally electric are his unexpected deliveries of simple lines like "I'm scared," when Mrs. Huff, late at night, brandishes a knife.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Huff is an exercise in avoiding camp, and Geesman toes that line perfectly. Still, there are moments in The Udmurts that, if written as jokes, are insultingly broad. It's 2016, and a person with an accent is not inherently funny. There's a moment in the play when Nate attempts the accent himself to impress his rich would-be lover, Clem (Steve Vanderzee); and Clem's girlfriend, Rain (Andrea White), but it's hard to tell if one is meant to be disappointed in Nate in that moment or if the play simply thinks it's hilarious that not everyone is American.
Questionable script aside, this is an undeniably good production. The set is cluttered without being campy, the movement is comfortable, the performances excellent. The problem with The Udmurts is that it tries to be about community, but is too into its own community to focus fully on anything else. But there's plenty of fascinating material here about identity, and even an oddly compelling socioeconomic throughline—Clem and Rain are obsessed with an impending economic collapse that will leave the world in ruins. It's worth the ride, assuming you can stomach the occasional bout of self-congratulatory theater worship.