'The Christians': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
'The Christians'
This thoughtful but overly stylized drama is not nearly as profound as it pretends to be.

Lucas Hnath's play about the internal conflicts within an evangelical megachurch opens off-Broadway prior to its December run at the Mark Taper Forum.

It's so rare to see religious beliefs depicted onstage without condescension that Lucas Hnath's new play becomes all the more intriguing. Depicting the internal fissure that develops within an evangelical megachurch when its head pastor declares a dramatic shift in doctrine during his weekly sermon, The Christians is an ambitious, thoughtful effort that deserves attention. But even though attention must be paid, the work ultimately proves disappointing in its overly stylized presentation and lack of dramatic impact. Currently being given its New York premiere at off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons, it will be seen later this year at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum.

Hnath — who has received acclaim for such provocative works as Isaac's Eye and A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney — was raised in a religious household, and his familiarity with his subject matter is palpable.  Set during a church service, the play begins with several hymns performed by a 20-member onstage choir, followed by a four-part sermon — featuring such topics as "The Fires of Hell" — delivered by the head pastor, Paul (Andrew Garman).

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And that's where the trouble begins, as he announces a dramatic change of heart about Hell, namely that it doesn't actually exist and that everyone — saints and sinners, true believers or not — will wind up in Heaven. The radical idea provokes no small amount of consternation, with associate pastor Joshua (Larry Powell) promptly announcing his disapproval and calling for a vote. The result is that Paul leaves the church, followed by fifty like-minded congregants.

A series of confrontations ensue, beginning with business-minded church elder Jay (Philip Kerr) attempting to persuade Paul to change his position. Paul's wife Elizabeth (Linda Powell) strongly voicing her disagreement, laments the loss of the church members.

"In order for a tree to grow, some pruning is necessary," Paul casually responds.

And congregant Jenny (Emily Donahoe), a financially strapped single mother, summons up the courage to challenge Paul directly, asking him if he believes that even Hitler is in Heaven. When Paul responds in the affirmative, she comments, "See now, that's hard to swallow, I think."

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Unfortunately, even with its provocative ideas, the play never really catches fire.  It's partly because of the bizarre stylistic choice to have all of the dialogue, including the private conversations, delivered on the church pulpit, with the actors using hand-held microphones as if they were literally preaching to the choir. The same is true of Paul's occasional and distracting narration, as well as his delivery of his private thoughts. Like the large choir whose members mainly sit onstage in silence throughout, it all seems like a distracting affectation.

Garman projects the charismatic intensity necessary to be believable as the leader of the megachurch, and the supporting players are equally adept. Dane Laffrey's outstanding set design, featuring gleaming wood panels, a giant wooden cross, and large video screens on which images of nature are projected, wouldn't look out of place on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. It's that arresting image, and the microphone-toting actors, that are far more likely to linger in your memory than the play itself. 

Cast: Emily Donahoe, Andrew Garman, Philip Kerr, Larry Powell, Linda Powell
Playwright: Lucas Hnath
Director: Les Waters
Set designer: Dane Laffrey
Costume designer: Connie Furr Solomon
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Sound designer: Jake Rodriguez
Presented by Playwrights Horizons and Center Theatre Group

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