Every day, swarms of fanny-packed tourists wander New York's Times Square in search of the elusive theatrical bargain. Some of them wind up with partially obstructed views of Mamma Mia; others go for the discount nosebleed section at Stepping Out. Inevitably, they will all come to ask themselves the same question: Why has God forsaken me?
With just four hours, $30, and lives lacking in meaning, we're ready to immerse ourselves in the razzle-dazzlingest religion of them allOne's entertainment dollar doesn't go quite so far as it used to on the Great White Way, even if you shell out $100 or more for full-price tickets. Let's face it, even Wicked is a disappointment, no matter how long your fellow audience members might stand for the obligatory ovation. But we're going to let you in on a little secret: The best show on Broadway is absolutely free, and it's never sold out. It's called the Church of Scientology.
As befits a religion with so much star power, Scientology's acolytes have turned proselytizing into a performance art. And with its neoclassical columns and glass-and-marble facade, the Church's Times Square headquarters is a gleaming monument to the magic of theater. You'll probably love the production so much that you'll want to donate the suggested $30 for must-have souvenirs when it's over, but there's no pressure.
On assignment for Radar, I embark on a scouting expedition to the center with my friend Brian, an illustrator. In an entertainment district boasting not only Altar Boys and Jersey Boys but also Naked Boys Singing, we have serious doubts about a show without boys in the title. But we keep a positive attitude. With just four hours, $30, and, as we soon learn, lives lacking in meaning, value, and basically anything at all except animalistic selfishness, we're ready to immerse ourselves in the razzle-dazzlingest religion of them all.
You deck yourself out for a night at the opera. You doll yourself up for a big dinner date. And when visiting the Scientology center, you dress like someone with a void to fill—an abiding sadness that metastasizes with each night spent alone, watching TV, dropping Chinese food on yourself, trolling the Internet for free porn, and wishing for something, anything to fill the vast, whistling emptiness. I choose a Gap polo shirt tucked into khakis. Brian wears a Philadelphia Eagles cap and cargo shorts.
We walk in and meet Jimmy, a plainspoken New York City native who will be our leering Alan Cumming emcee in the cabaret of weirdness that follows. He isn't at all like you'd expect. But that you'd expect anything in the first place is, in Jimmy's opinion, a pain in the ass.
"A lot of people who come in here off the street are your know-it-all phony intellectuals," he says, pegging me without even trying. "They don't come in with open minds."
Jimmy is likable. He wears a button-down tucked loosely into Dockers and talks with the wiry intensity of Midnight Cowboy's Ratso Rizzo. He tells us how Scientology has helped him deal with his girlfriend's constant chatter. His expression for a large amount of something is "pantsload," as in, "Hubbard got his start writing detective stories and such, and I'll tell you, he made a pantsload of cash."
Jimmy leads us to the Spartan screening room where we watch a 15-minute video introduction to Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, L. Ron Hubbard's unifying theory of the human mind and an unparalleled masterwork of yanked-from-the-ass lingo. Hubbard uses jargon like David Mamet uses curse words, only instead of bull sessions between losers at a pawn shop, he crafted a system for losers to base their lives around. Some religions require a big leap of faith, Scientology asks for lots of small leaps to the glossary.
Abandoned by Jimmy in a darkened room (after he informs us that what we're about to see is "a little dramatic" and we'll have to "suspend our disbelief"), Brian and I absorb the mellow aperitif that is the Dianetics primer reel. First, we learn that the mind comes in two parts: analytical and reactive. Then, in well-produced vignettes starring tomorrow's Travoltas and Cruises, we witness nice people suffering awful traumas (car wrecks, illness, getting beaned with a baseball). We're informed that even when they're not fully conscious (while they're being loaded into an ambulance, say) their reactive mind™ dumps every ambient scent, sound and image into deep storage.
At one point, an accident victim is out cold while an EMT talks to another about breaking up with his girlfriend.
"You know, I just didn't want to find out later that I'm stuck in a long-term relationship," he says.
Later, the same victim has recovered and is driving with his own girlfriend. The car skids and sense memories of the accident come flooding back, including what he overheard about the EMT's dating woes. Suddenly the victim associates his girlfriend with the grisly aftermath of an auto collision. This gets him thinking.
"I just don't want to find out later that I'm stuck in a long-term relationship," he tells the baffled girl.
Have you seen the David Cronenberg movie where people want to have sex with car crash wounds? This scene is kind of like that, if the film were to be re-imagined by the producers of Yes, Dear. After taking it in, I'm not entirely convinced that these painful sense memories called engrams are the root cause of all human misery. But it's definitely clear that break-ups would be easier if you could say, "It's not you, it's that you remind me of twisted, gore-draped steel and the scent of blood dripping into a flaming gas puddle. We should still hang out, though."
The lights click on. Brian and I catch our breath. It was an edge-of-your-seat conversion experience. We stagger out of the screening room to be shepherded again by Jimmy. My reactive mind™ records a sense memory of his Aqua Velva. He leads us down a hallway lined with video screens, text-crammed posters, and an incredible amount of books. Admission to the Center is free, but do your analytical mind a favor and pony up a suggested $30 or so for what Scientologists call "source materials." I clutch paperback copies of Dianetics, Scientology: A New Slant On Life, and Scientology: The Fundamentals of Thought while Jimmy turns our attention to a wall monitor.
He plays a video of testimonials from actual Scientologists, not actors (although in any random sampling of Scientologists, you're bound to find at least seventeen actors). A woman says Scientology made her cancer go away. A guy who lived for years with no sense of smell reports that, after submitting to the engram™-scrubbing process known as auditing, his nose was as good as new. Several people credit Scientology as a life saver and nearly everyone speaks in tones that say, "I don't wanna use the word 'miracle,' but..."
The next stop on our victory tour is the stress test, conducted with a junky, plastic, hobby-science device called an E-meter. Not having Wikipedia on hand, I ask Jimmy what an E-meter™ does and how it works.
"Basically it reads your thoughts," he says.
Fair enough. Jimmy instructs me to hold the cups loosely and think about someone in my life to whom I have a strong emotional reaction. I think about a close friend. The needle doesn't budge.
"Okay, now think about someone else. Same deal."
I think about my mother. Still no reaction from the needle.
"Are you thinking?" The needle surges. "Oh! What was that? Just now?"
I try to remember. My best guess: the spike happened around the time my thoughts about mom were trailing off. Maybe my emotional response was so powerful that it left some kind of ectoplasmic turbulence in its wake. Or maybe I accidentally squeezed the cups.
But there's no time to contemplate. We're already being prepped for our next task, the Oxford Capacity Analysis (which, you may have guessed, has absolutely nothing to do with the university). In the dramatic triangle of our afternoon, the OCA is the probing, uncomfortable tip. We settle in for a rousing third act.
Brian and I are made to sit at desks in a cubby. Jimmy tells us the OCA is a standard personality test, not a Scientology thing (I discover later that it was not only devised by a Scientologist but a close friend of Hubbard's, in 1959). It's comprised of 200 questions, each of which can be answered positively, negatively, or not at all. I've taken tests like this before. I once worked as a Wal-Mart cashier, and before they hired me they asked, among other things, whether I'd go to the cops or my manager if I saw a crime committed in the store. I answered incorrectly then (I didn't trust my manager to bring a roll of quarters when I needed it, let alone handle a crime scene), and I have a feeling I'm not doing any better on the OCA.
We finish and hand off our exams to a new handler named Terry, who is trained in OCA scoring and interpretation. Terry is the antithesis of Jimmy; where Jimmy had earthy, Runyonesque charm, Terry has the silver scratch-off congeniality of a parolee who just wishes you'd make fun of his Burger King uniform. He leads us purposefully up the stairs to what he calls the "VIP room" (just across from the well-stocked Scientology snack bar) and sits me down at a small table. Terry looks me dead in the eye through his off-the-Walgreens-display reading glasses. His expression would be familiar to anyone who's sat across from a doctor and been told they're dying from a flesh-rotting genital parasite. My reactive mind™ braces itself for disaster.
The results aren't good. Terry shows me a graph with a few peaks and valleys, but mostly valleys. It indicates that I am deeply depressed. I'm also unstable, nervous, uncertain, irresponsible enough to leave an infant on the roof of my car, and so withdrawn that leaving an infant on the roof of my car is probably the closest I will ever come to connecting with another human being. On the plus side, I seem to be a go-getter, but as Terry points out, test results in that category were inconclusive.
Brian fares even worse. Terry interprets his results this way: "You'll find yourself at age 50 with no teeth left in your mouth because you've gotten in so many fights, and no friends left except people who hate themselves as much as you hate yourself."
Fucking Christ. Thankfully, in both our cases, Scientology can help.
After stumbling separately out of the VIP room, Brian and I realize that we've been at the Scientology center for nearly three and a half hours. We've already gotten serious bang for our entertainment buck. But there's still one more stop left on our itinerary: Orientation.
If you see just one piece of Scientology propaganda this year (a category that includes Vanilla Sky and Paul Haggis's Crash), make it Orientation. There is no better encapsulation of what the religion purports to be, and what it actually is. You can walk into almost any Scientology center in the country and ask to see it (it's also posted periodically on the Web, but the Church doesn't let it stay up for long). Not seeing it is like turning down a ticket to see the Rolling Stones play your own basement, more or less. If you think it's base to intrude on someone else's space for your own glib amusement, remember that Hubbard's missionary strategy relies heavily on co-opting celebrities to penetrate the mainstream consciousness. He's been sneaking into your living room for years. No harm in pulling up a chair in his.
Much of Orientation defies description. (Besides, I really do want you to see it.) But its climax is stunning. The host, a stiff-haired automaton shuffling from room to room in a typical Scientology "org" to interview various Church officials, ends his journey with a direct appeal to the viewer. At first the camera keeps a nice, comfortable distance. Then the host picks up steam, and we ease in closer and closer until we're right up in his face.
"Right this instant, you are at the threshold of your next trillion years," he intones. "You will live it in shivering agonized darkness, or you will live it triumphantly in the light; the choice is yours, not ours."
The camera moves in so close that we now appear to be inside the host's nostril.
"If you leave this room after seeing this film, and walk out and never mention Scientology again, you are perfectly free to do so. It would be stupid, but you can do it. You can also dive off a bridge or blow your brains out. That is your choice."
Evil Ron Popeil finishes his pitch and steps aside to reveal a huge, ornate doorway. The doors open and a supernova of white light spills out, along with a single, towering, monolithic word: "HELLO."
Brian and I slip out of the screening room and escape onto 46th Street. Two guys, rotten to the core, irredeemable except through thousands of dollars in intensive, Church-monitored auditing™. We have a choice to make: Shiver in agonized darkness? Leap off a bridge? Blow our brains out?
We go for burritos.
On our way, we pass a crowd of bewildered theatergoers spilling out of the Lion King. Suckers.