Susan Granger’s review of “The Christians” (Playwrights Horizons: 2015-2015 season)
Lucas Hnath tackles the internal politics of theology, as the founding pastor of an evangelical megachurch declares a radical shift in doctrine during his weekly sermon.
Set in a stunning wood-paneled church with a giant white cross – and large video screens showing images of nature – the play commences with several hymns, performed by a blue-robed chorus, followed by a Sunday sermon, delivered by charismatic Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman).
In a lesson covering “The Fires of Hell,” Pastor Paul declares that Hell doesn’t actually exist and that everyone – from saints to sinners – will wind up in Heaven, whether or not they’re believers.
Amid general consternation, Associate Pastor Joshua (Larry Powell), quoting Scripture, announces his disagreement, leaving the church, followed by like-minded congregants, as Pastor Paul notes, “In order for a tree to grow, some pruning is necessary.”
As a result of this schism, there are a series of skirmishes, including an ostensibly private one with Jay (Philip Kerr), a church elder. A financially-strapped single mother, Jenny (Emily Donahoe), asks if Paul believes that someone as evil as Hitler went to Heaven. When Paul responds affirmatively, she says, “That’s hard to swallow.”
Unfortunately, despite all of Paul’s provocative ideas and the best efforts of the cast, including Paul’s wife Elizabeth (Linda Powell), whose final confrontation is devastating, the drama never fully ignites. Perhaps that’s because it’s overly stylized. Director Les Waters marches each actor up to the pulpit, holding a hand-held microphone to deliver the dialogue.
With “Isaac’s Eye” and “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney” on his resume, author Lucas Hnath’s passion about religion was kindled by his upbringing, and he demonstrates profound knowledge about this subject, which is particularly relevant now, as conservative congregations are grappling with the concept gay marriage.
“The Christians” is making its Off-Broadway New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons, running through October 11, before transferring to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.