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The Religion Thing

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Katharine McLeod and Jamie Geiger.
Photo by Jimmy Ryan.
Religion is complicated. On the one hand, it can be a source of comfort and communal support; on the other, a bastion of conflict, where "I believe" takes the leap from strongly held opinion to entrenched certitude and absolutism. Playwright Renee Calarco examines both sides through the experiences of two married couples in her savvy and often sharply comic The Religion Thing, a production of Project Y Theatre Company, now on view at The Cell.

For the recently married Patti (Danielle O'Farrell) and Jeff (Andrew William Smith), their embrace of Evangelical Christianity was triggered by a sincere—some might say desperate—effort to break away from the demons of their respective pasts. They perceive their adopted faith as a rock-solid foundation where they can count on the Lord to "lead us not into temptation" in order to get them through each day.

The second couple is Patti's friend Mo (Katharine McLeod), a "lapsed Catholic," and Brian (Jamie Geiger), a non-observant Jew. For Mo and Brian, matters of religion, which had never been particularly important in their marriage, take on increasing significance as the scapegoat for their troubled relationship when they consider the possibility of becoming parents.

For true believers, the tenets of their religion provide them with the script they must follow as the price to pay for the succor they seek. So when Mo confronts Patti, her oldest and closest friend, by asking point out if she now believes that Mo and Brian are condemned to hell for not accepting Christ as their savior, it is a telling revelation that the answer is "Yeah." But it is not only religion that takes on shifting meanings in the characters' lives. Honesty is also put to the test, and though the characters blurt out statements of truth, such as Patti's response to Mo, complete honesty is often caught up in self-delusion that is pierced only during moments when they are "visited" by separate dream or fantasy figures (all of whom are portrayed by Curran Connor, who also does a short standup comedy routine by way of introduction to the play's theme).

The cast, under Douglas Hall's direction, is uniformly strong, with Katharine McLeod a standout as Mo, the only one who figures out the importance of a flexible outlook on life and faith. Curran also does quite well in portraying the various fantasy figures¬óBrian's grandfather, a nun who comes to Mo in a dream, Jeff's boss (a potential threat to his marriage), and the standup comic who is a former boyfriend from Patti's wilder days.

Plays with religion as a driving theme are difficult to pull off without slipping into polemic. Here the playwright mostly avoids that by incorporating humor and by allowing the characters to have their say, with only an occasional lapse where conversations sound like asides to the audience. The open space of The Cell and Kevin Judge's set design invite the audience into an intimate connection with the characters, and you can't help but wish all of them well despite any misgivings you may cling to at the end, when only Mo emerges on solid ground, despite the breakup of her marriage. Maybe it's because her personal dream visitor is a wise nun who counsels her: "You can't have it all. Take what you want and ignore the rest."

The Religion Thing
Through August 1
Cell Theatre, 338 West 23rd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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