The Christians: Theater review by David Cote
A segment of the American population seems to believe Christianity is under attack from godless socialists, gay-marriage supporters and rival creeds trying to impose theocracy on our fair land. Imaginary or not, laughable or not, such threats are nothing compared to the internal fissures that Jesus’ teachings have developed over two millennia in organized form. Today, a self-professed Christian may blissfully ignore the poor, laud the death penalty or discriminate against LGBT folks. Lucas Hnath’s new play shows a megachurch pastor pushing concepts of salvation and forgiveness to their logical conclusions, raising the legitimate question: Who will save Christianity from Christians?
Just as early theologians took the “via negativa” to define God by what He is not, let’s identify what traps Hnath has avoided. The Christians is not religious satire. It’s not an avant-garde deconstruction, like Young Jean Lee’s 2007 meta-service Church. But it’s also not a naturalistic drama in the tradition of Mass Appeal or Agnes of God. Instead, the play interrogates articles of faith in a cold but earnest light, as Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman) tries to float a radical notion to his congregation: What if there were no Hell or Satan and everyone, regardless of faith, has already been saved?
Without the stick of damnation backing up the carrot of Heaven, Paul finds his flock starting to stray. Associate pastor Joshua (silky and sharp Larry Powell) creates a schism that banishes himself but also frees him to form a rival church. The board of directors asks Paul why he dropped this doctrinal bomb right after the church’s debts were paid off. And Paul’s devoted wife, Elizabeth (Linda Powell), is enraged that he didn’t check with her first. As the believers start to desert Paul, he must face his own crisis of faith.
Although The Christians has been superbly staged by Les Waters on Dane Laffrey’s tacky-creepy set and the near-constant use of handheld microphones serves to both amplify and distance the cool, coiled language, Hnath seems to lose nerve as he goes. The opening scene and another in which Paul is confronted by a distrustful member of the choir (Emily Donahoe, understated and harrowing) really crackle, but the action veers into the personal (husband versus wife) and spins its wheels. Perhaps Hnath wanted to avoid surreal or grotesque twists in favor of sympathetic, intellectual directness, but we aren’t invested enough in the characters as specific people or as idea generators to maintain our engagement. (That’s despite a performance of enormous grace and innate decency from Garman.)
There are so few plays that take on big moral questions, and Hnath (A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney) is a serious writer, so I can still recommend The Christians, but I cannot promise ecstasies or the rewards of Heaven.—David Cote
Playwrights Horizons (Off Broadway). By Lucas Hnath. Directed by Les Waters. With Andrew Garman, Emily Donahoe, Larry Powell, Linda Powell, Philip Kerr. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
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