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Theatre in Review: The Christians (Playwrights Horizons)

Linda Powell, Andrew Garman, Larry Powell, Philp Kerr. Photo: Joan Marcus

In Lucas Hnath's new play, a pastor preaches a sermon on redemption and opens the door to a personal purgatory. Paul, the pastor, has every reason to consider his life blessed. Standing in his sumptuous sanctuary, backed by an accomplished choir, he recalls how he started out in a storefront, with a congregation of less than two dozen. Now, in his big, beautiful new building, he points out that the facility has "thousands of seats, classrooms for Sunday school, a baptismal big as a swimming pool. In the lobby, there's a coffee shop and a bookstore, and, out back, a parking lot so vast, you could get yourself lost in it, if you're not careful."

However, Paul adds, the time has come to address "a crack in the foundation of this church, and I'm not talking about the building." He proceeds to denounce a Christianity that automatically consigns the members of all other religions to hell; more to the point, he insists, there is no hell, nor is there a pointy-eared devil tormenting the souls of the damned. Hell, he asserts, is where too many people already live; it's the role of Christians to help them out of it with love and understanding. But, all too often, he adds, that's not what happens. Instead, the suffering of this earth are held at arm's length: "We put the distance there. When we shun our neighbors, when we judge our friends, when we look down at people from other places and other religions, we create an insurmountable distance where there is no distance at all."

It's a beautifully reasoned argument and an uplifting, inclusive message -- and it causes everyone who matters to Paul to desert him one by one. First up is Joshua, the associate pastor, whose faith was hard won after a harrowing youth spent on the streets. He loves his religion for the certainty it provides him, and he has no use for Paul's attempts to reframe hell as a psychological state. Before long, he has departed to set up his own congregation. Jenny, a congregant, is grateful for the way Paul and the church helped her through a divorce and its attendant financial difficulties. But when others, including her new boyfriend, flee for Joshua's church, her questions become more pointed. Taking issue with Paul's concept of hell-as-metaphor, she says, Joshua's followers "point to other Bible verses where it doesn't sound like hell is just a trash dump....It's as if you have a choice about how to read it." Jay, a church elder, is sympathetic to Paul's ideas, but as a board member he is also charged with a fiduciary responsibility to the church, and he is worried about the defections that follow Paul's sermon. Paul asks, "What good is a good church if all it does is make everyone feel so bad?" Jay parries, "Yes, but what good is a church that no one goes to?"

Most devastating of all is the defection of Elizabeth, Paul's wife, who, among other things, doesn't appreciate hearing about Paul's new ideas for the first time in one of his sermons. Confronting Paul, who insists that the defections of Joshua and the others were for the good of the congregation, she says, "You're saying that absolute tolerance requires intolerance of the intolerant?"

The Christians is remarkable for many reasons, but first of all because it takes its characters, and their arguments, seriously. It is not a work of satire, and we are not invited to feel superior to Paul and others because they are people of faith. Instead, it examines, with uncommon lucidity, how those who sincerely profess to love Christ can differ so violently in their definitions of goodness. Watching Paul lose everyone who matters to him, to face the implosion of his marriage, is to experience how a religion designed to bring peace and unity to the world often has the opposite effect.

The director, Les Waters, has put together an exceptionally fine cast, all of them skilled at extracting drama from scenes in which voices are rarely raised. Andrew Garman's Paul has an aura of authentic goodness, mixed with just a touch of arrogance; clearly, he thought he could persuade everyone of his point of view, and his anguish as his life unravels is genuinely touching. Larry Powell makes the most of a quietly stunning speech in which Joshua reveals that his belief in hell was solidified as he watched his unbelieving mother slip into death. Philip Kerr's Jay is so economically conceived that a single gesture, a quiet folding together of his hands, is enough to suggest that Paul has been cast aside. Emily Donahoe's Jenny comes on shy and respectful, but check her increasingly truculent tone as her questioning of Paul wears on. Linda Powell is first-rate as Elizabeth, whether she is coolly taking in her husband's sermon, unleashing her white hot rage at him, or, in a quietly despairing moment, admitting, "I'm worried that we won't be together forever, and I'm worried that it'll be my fault." My one reservation is the extensive use of microphones; this makes sense when Paul is speaking to the congregation or arguing with Joshua during a service, but much less so when he is quietly confronting the others. This is nothing against Jake Rodriguez's sound design, but this is the second play I've seen this week in which actors speak most of their dialogue using handheld mics; I sincerely hope it isn't a trend.

Anyway, Dane Laffrey's cherry-wood sanctuary is a photographically exact rendition of the classier type of megachurch; it comes complete with projection screens for uplifting images of doves in flight and the sun peeking through clouds. Ben Stanton's uncluttered lighting and Connie Furr Soloman's costumes -- formal suits for the principals, choir robes for the singers who back them up -- are solid.

We've gotten a fair number of plays about religion lately, but not one that takes the American Christian evangelical phenomenon as head-on and fairly as The Christians. Given the controversies over same-sex marriage, Planned Parenthood, and abortion currently roiling this country, it's hard to think of another play in New York that speaks so pertinently to this particular moment in history. -- David Barbour

(18 September 2015)

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