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STAGE REVIEW

In 'Mormon Boy' he goes to extremes to share his life story

Show creator and performer Steven Fales details his transition from Mormon husband and father to gay prostitute. (carol rosegg)

The Boston Theatre Works poster for "Confessions of a Mormon Boy" shows two images of the touring show's creator and performer, Steven Fales, and they're both gorgeous. In one, he's a bright-eyed, beaming missionary; in the other, he's a bare-chested Manhattan escort, finger pressed seductively to his lips. But the Steven Fales who slowly reveals himself onstage, not just physically but spiritually, is both more flawed and more fully human than either of those personae ever allowed him to be.

If Fales hadn't subtitled his show "A True Story," you might be tempted to think he'd made it up, because it moves so dramatically between extremes. A sixth-generation Mormon, Fales grew up trying desperately to fight his "SSA," or "same-sex attraction," going so far as to marry a Mormon woman (they both hoped she could help "cure" him) and father two children. Ultimately, though, he couldn't deny his sexual identity, and after divorce and excommunication from the church of his birth, he moved to New York City to pursue his dreams of an acting career -- then quickly found himself working as a gay prostitute to support those dreams (oh, and a taste for crystal meth).

It's not just the subtitle, though, that underscores the truth of Fales's story. It's his remarkable ability to show us the extremes without getting stuck in them. Now neither a church member nor an escort, he nevertheless retains an astonishing generosity of spirit about both those worlds. It's rare to hear someone speak so passionately about both spiritual and physical ecstasy. Without excusing bigotry and hypocrisy on the one hand, or exploitation and deceit on the other, he still persuasively declares that good people can exist even in the most oppressive situations.

That might sound a little preachy, but Fales mostly leavens his lessons with fierce comedy and sharp intelligence -- which, to his credit, he directs not just against obvious targets, from a humorless church elder to a jaded pimp, but against his own self-absorption and self-deception. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of a narcissistic personality disorder. . .," he jokes near the end. We laugh, both because it's funny and because that very self-awareness is what makes the script's occasional wanderings into solipsism or inside jokes both believable and forgivable.

Fales developed the script over several years, then polished it with the director Jack Hofsiss (best known for "Elephant Man") before making an off-Broadway debut. Their collaboration provides some deft touches, with music ranging from Madonna to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir creating amusing and apt transitions, and with an unearthly beam of light lending authority to the Voice that directs Fales first to marry, then later to get his money-making ideas from the ads in gay newspapers. ("You mean," Fales asks the Voice in tremulous wonder, "the job Mary Magdalene did before she met Jesus?")

The show also steers clear of some potential pitfalls, one of them set by a previous team of producers who backed out when Fales balked at their suggestion : In the character's transition from Mormon to escort, they wanted him to strip down from temple undergarments (the special underwear that devout Mormons consider sacred) to full nudity. He refused -- not just because he didn't want to get naked onstage, but because he wasn't willing to mock a tradition he had once held as holy.

Like the audiences that might be lured by the poster's promise of a hunky striptease, those producers didn't quite get what they were looking for. But they missed something at once less titillating and more rewarding: the final, startling, and yet utterly appropriate revelation that Fales makes onstage.

No, he doesn't bare his body. He bares his soul. And, even if that soul is one that his church has condemned, it still feels like a sacred gift.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

'Related'

Confessions of a Mormon Boy: A True Story

Written and performed by Steven Fales

Originally directed by: Jack Hofsiss. Set and lights, Steven Cohen, adapted by John Malinowski. Sound, Joe Killian, adapted by Nathan Leigh. Costumes, Ellis Tillman. Hair and makeup, Brian Haugen. Presented by Boston Theatre Works.

At: Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, through May 19. Tickets, $30-35. 617-933-8600, bostontheatrescene.com

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