Do theology and theater mix? Is there an unspoken separation between church and stage? A day after the announcement that Amazing Grace will close on Broadway after little more than three months, The Christians opens Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, telling the story of a pastor who shocks his congregation with a single sermon.
In Lucas Hnath’s play, Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman) has spent the past 20 years building what started out as a storefront church into a megachurch, which has thousands of members who worship in a glorious new edifice, complete with “a baptismal big as a swimming pool.” In the sermon on this particular day, Paul tells the congregation that the church has at long last paid off all its debt. He also takes the opportunity to explain that he attended a conference two weeks earlier in which another pastor, a missionary, told the sad tale of a teenage boy in a foreign country who saved his sister by rushing into a grocery store that had been set ablaze in a terrorist attack, but died himself while doing so. Pastor Paul was taken aback when the missionary said that it was a shame the boy was going to Hell because he wasn’t Christian. That’s when, Paul says, he had a conversation with God, and he reached a conclusion that he was announcing to the congregation:
“We are no longer a congregation that believes in Hell.”
What follows is the fall-out from this announcement. First, Paul’s associate pastor Joshua (Larry Powell) strongly objects to this change; the two battle by citing competing passages of scripture. This in effect forces Paul to poll the congregation, with the result that there is a schism, with Joshua leaving the church and taking some 50 church members (a relative handful) with him. We subsequently hear from church elder Jay (Philip Kerr); from Jenny, a young mother who is a member of the church (Emily Donahoe), who is worried about the implications and repercussions of a universe without Hell (and also suspicious about the peculiar timing of his announcement, just after the church no longer needs large donations); and finally, and most painfully, even from Paul’s wife Elizabeth (Linda Powell.)
There are of course plenty of stage shows that touch on religion, but the most successful ones – the recent limited run of An Act of God with Jim Parsons, for example, or the huge hit The Book of Mormon – milk it for laughs. Just last season, Playwrights Horizons presented the play Bootycandy featuring an over-the-top preacher with an outrageous secret. What’s most unexpected about The Christians, playing in that same theater, is that there’s not a scintilla of satire. Hnath, whose mother is an ordained minister and who at one time considered becoming a member of the clergy himself, treats each character with respect. His aim seems not to score points but to explore the nature of faith and the politics of a church like this.
Director Les Waters and the design team work hard to give a genuine feel for a church. Besides the five cast members, there is a rotating choir of 20 robe-wearing singers, recruited from throughout New York City, who provide gospel music interludes in-between the confrontations; they also serve as a kind of backdrop for much of the play.
More production photos at NewYorkTheater.me
As in a real megachurch, every character holds a microphone when they speak. This makes far more sense when the characters are addressing the congregation than in the private scenes, for example, between husband and wife when they are supposedly at home in bed (although actually sitting in two of the throne-like wooden chairs in front of the choir.) It’s an intrusive choice, imbuing some scenes with oddly stilted performances. Perhaps this is a way of underscoring how much the church colors every aspect of the life of the believers – even when they speak, it is not just in their own voice but in a voice amplified by their church.
One can extrapolate the particular theology of Paul’s church to be non-denominational, evangelical and fundamentalist, although none of those words are ever even uttered during the play.
What if you are not evangelical or fundamentalist or non-denominational? What if you’re not a believer at all? Will The Christians still speak to you? The intellectual arguments over the existence of hell can be engaging even for those who long ago made up their minds one way or another. There is also something intriguing in contemplating the emotional effects on someone who is being forced to question their long-held beliefs, whatever these happen to be. There is even an interesting lesson here about group dynamics and the psychology of leadership. But, no, I don’t imagine The Christians will speak as loudly to people who would sooner hum John Lennon’s Imagine:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
The Christians is on stage at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street New York, NY 10036, west of Ninth Avenue) through October 11, 2015.
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