Most theater people believe that their chosen art form holds a unique power to build community and positively transform lives. The social outcast finds her peer group. The rudderless drifter realizes his calling. Whether in professional, educational, or community-theater settings, I’ve seen it happen so many times. At its best, theater welcomes and transforms. At its best, theater does what a good church should.
This special power to accept and restore was tested mightily in the first season of HBO’s dark comedy, Barry. Created by Alec Berg and Saturday Night Live veteran Bill Hader (who also stars in the title role), Barry reveals what might happen if the acting bug bit a professional assassin. In the first episode, Barry tracks his latest victim to a Los Angeles theater class populated by a troupe of lovable, wannabe actors. Echoing Romans 12, Barry’s unexpected participation in an acting scene sparks a latent desire to discard his murderous past in order to pursue what is good and pleasing. Indeed, throughout the series, Barry finds that the theater might offer a way for him to abandon his world, renew his mind, and restore his soul.
Barry has a lot to overcome on his journey towards renewal. A disillusioned and damaged former Marine, his career as a hitman takes advantage of the only marketable skill he acquired during violent tours in Afghanistan. A ruthless and manipulative family friend named Monroe (Stephen Root) initiates and manages Barry’s life of killing. A practiced expert, Barry clinically and methodically moves from city to city stalking his next hit. His gift for killing predictably weighs upon him. Although not one to express emotions, Barry dies a little more inside with each completed job. Yes, assassins suffer from depression too.
A window then opens when the despairing Barry serendipitously stumbles into the acting class. Finding himself onstage stirs something buried deep within. It helps that an actress named Sally (played with bumptious glee by Sarah Goldberg) takes a romantic interest in him. Barry’s quest for transformation becomes clear in the final line of the season premiere. When a starry-eyed waitress informs her table that she is an actor, Barry responds, “So am I.” To his delight, he has found something new to be.
With the enthusiasm of a convert, Barry pronounces to Monroe that he’s finished with killing. Monroe refuses to let his hired gun out of his contract without proper compensation, inciting a saga of hilarious negotiations and violent retributions involving sandwich-loving Chechen mobsters, pint-sized Bolivian drug-runners, and clueless cops. Barry swears that each new kill will be his last. The bodies and the proclamations pile up straight through the season finale.
To his delight, Barry has found something new to be.
Barry might be described as a cross between No Country for Old Men and Waiting for Guffman. As a counter to the the disturbing and graphic violence, the theater sequences are full of laughter. In what should be an Emmy-winning performance, Henry Winkler steals nearly every scene as Gene Cousineau, the ridiculously self-important and cruelly blunt acting guru whose expensive instruction includes such gems as “Listen with your ears, react with you face” and “Hit your mark and say your lines.”
Full of insider lingo, Cousineau assigns his impressionable actors monologues from 1990s films like Glengarry Glen Ross, seemingly unaware that this edgy text actually derives from David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. That Barry innocently misinterprets one of Mamet’s profanity-laced monologues only fuels the hilarity. Too naive to know how bad this theater training is, Barry embraces Cousineau’s abusive and self-indulgent method with zeal. With one notable exception—a genuinely moving scene from Macbeth in which Barry remorsefully channels his murderous self—Cousineau’s teaching leads to painfully bad but irresistibly funny performances.
Even so, this hit man’s brush with art provides a glimpse of what could be. In acting class, Barry discovers an accepting community willing to embrace him. More significantly, Barry’s adorably awful stabs at acting unveil for him the existence of a hidden world of redemptive beauty. On multiple occasions, the series depicts idealized, future fantasies in which Barry and Sarah flourish as artists, lovers, parents, and human beings. In short, artistic expression provides Barry his glimpse of the Kingdom, even as spiraling acts of violence jolt him back to the self-inflicted harsh realities of life. Sadly, he can’t figure out how to get there, although he never stops trying.
As image bearers, we imitate a creative Creator. A compelling case can be made that we grow closer to God when we follow our predispositions to make beautiful things. Occasionally, these imaginative yearnings transcend our sinful natures and broken lives. Echoing Romans, Barry intuitively yearns to transform by the renewing of his mind, so that his life will showcase what is good and pleasing. He sees a life as an actor as a pathway toward a gracious state of being.
Looking ahead several months into the future, the season finale nearly tricks us into believing that Barry somehow gets there. (Spoilers ahead.) Reminiscent of his earlier fantasies, the episode reveals a peaceful Barry enjoying a blissful life of art and love. Of course, the ramifications of his murderous past return. His idyllic future challenged, Barry pleads, “I’m a good person, and I help people out.” Unfortunately, tragically, he operates under the moral delusion that redemption exists without atonement. Fortunately for Barry (and we in the audience), he will have more to learn in season two.