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Storefront Church

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Zach Grenier, Bob Dishy, Tonya Pinkins, Jordan Lage, Giancarlo Esposito, and Ron Cephas Jones.
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia

If it takes most believers a while to construct the foundation of their faith and a lifetime to reinforce it, it stands to reason that much the same will be true about plays concerning that particular struggle. At any rate, that's the case with John Patrick Shanley's Storefront Church, which just opened at the Atlantic Theater Company. Though the show ends up as a sparkling examination of religion as filtered through the movers and shakers at all levels of the private and public sectors, the turgid and uncentered first act makes the process of getting to that point into an awkward and unsatisfying pilgrimage.

One would think that this play and production (which Shanley also directed) would be able to less laboriously propose and then execute its argument. After all, as it's the third installment in Shanley's "Church and State" trilogy, hasn't much of its legwork already been done? Don't the playwright and his audiences have the basic understanding of where they're starting from, where they're going, and (hopefully) how they'll get there?

Not necessarily. The previous two entries, Doubt (2004) and Defiance (2006), shared a general theme (monolithic organizations, the Catholic church in the former and the American military in the latter, quashing individuality and challenging common sense), organizational structure, and in their original productions even a director (Doug Hughes). This harmed the second play, which demanded a different approach, but established a framework for the future that suggested that it was all building toward a specific kind of payoff.

At least in its earliest scenes, Storefront Church does not appear eager to deliver such a thing. Set in the Bronx in December 2009, in the thick of the recent financial crisis, it concerns people who are, for the most part, not obviously in the thrall of the higher callings of their predecessors. Ethan Goldklang (Bob Dishy) is a sixtysomething Jew married to the black Jessie Cortez (Tonya Pinkins); the couple is at the mercy of loan officer Reed van Druyten (Zach Grenier) and bank CEO Tom Raidenberg (Jordan Lage), with their home mortgaged for tens of thousands of dollars Jessie donated to Pentecostal preacher Chester Kimmich (Ron Cephas Jones) in creating the neighborhood facility of the title that has yet to open.

Determining whether Chester is a scam artist, cripplingly disorganized, or following some greater plan becomes the job of borough president Donaldo Calderon (Giancarlo Esposito), who inserts himself into the center of the conflict as a favor. What he doesn't know when he begins his search for answers is that he's literally and figuratively as invested in the venture's success as anyone else, and he learns—at great personal cost—that in a world of bottomless bailouts and complex credit default swaps, there's no easy way to tell the difference between a big victim and a small victim.

Although it's a simple plot, the details are myriad and the underlying realities deceptively complex. This requires extensive exposition among several key combinations of characters that Shanley does not manage well, and leaves you longing for the light, lean layout of Doubt (which was up and running, at full speed, in five minutes, rather than the hour needed here). And despite some strong performances, most notably from Esposito as the conflicted detective, and Grenier, who's superb as the physically afflicted financial gatekeeper who's unwaveringly dedicated to the principles of law and order to which his work adheres for reasons that only gradually become clear, what you're seeing never seems poised to add up to anything.

As the second act unfolds, however, the characters' intentions and failings rise to the surface, and we witness the terrifying extent to which they must accept almost everything on faith—they simply have nothing left to hold onto. As Shanley continues to pull strings and push around his pieces, we see exactly how this isn't just a workable finale to the trilogy, but also an ideal one: Try as many of us might to isolate religion and government from each other, they're inextricably linked in terms of both human outlooks and human policy. The most difficult, and the most valuable, struggle, isn't to separate them entirely but to get them to peacefully coexist.

Once that's the story Shanley is spinning at top strength, nothing can stop him from weaving a clever and powerful meditation on two at-odds (but not always incompatible) perspectives on the American Dream during the toughest times. The final scene set in the Divine Plan for Salvation Church (designed, as is the rest of the evening, with spare aplomb by Takeshi Kata, and well lit by Matthew Richards) is a crackling confluence of personalities and ideas related to responsibility, and the ways we all have to pay back what we owe—even when we can't afford to do so.

Storefront Church's chief problem might be that it lacks the ruthless economy of vision and dramaturgy that so successfully drove Doubt (to a lengthy Broadway run, a Pulitzer Prize, and a well-received film version), and if you've followed the saga from the beginning you may find yourself missing those qualities now. But, under the circumstances, it's not surprising that this play lives up to its subject matter in attempting to prove, as do so many of its characters, that economy is not always the most important thing.

Storefront Church
Through July 1
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current schedule: TicketCentral