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The Christians

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Andrew Garman with Linda Powell, Larry Powell, and Philip Kerr
Photo by Joan Marcus

Bait and switch may be frowned upon in the retail and political worlds, but in the theatre it can be positively blissful. Take, for example, Lucas Hnath's absorbing new play The Christians, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons.

In it, Paul, the lead pastor of a trendy, probably evangelical, megachurch, makes a stunning pronouncement during a sermon one Sunday: He no longer accepts the concept of Hell. He's studied the Bible fervently, he insists, and is happy to quote verse after verse from it that he believes has been misconstrued, misinterpreted, or willfully transformed into a strain of theology that goes against the true teachings of God and Jesus Christ. No longer, he says, will they condemn others to an eternity of damnation, judging them in spirit if not in fact. "We are no longer a congregation that believes in Hell. A radical change: We are no longer a congregation that says, 'My way is the only way.' We are no longer that kind of Church."

It's a stunning pronouncement, to be sure, and one that rifles a few of the faithful's feathers, such as those of the associate pastor, Joshua, and the two dozen people or so (out of thousands there that day), who follow him out of the church shortly thereafter. But it's a beautiful concept, isn't it? The notion of assured salvation for you and your loved ones, the certainty that you won't be abandoned just because you happened to not follow one religion or, perhaps, any religion. Citing 1 Corinthians 15:22, Paul suggests ongoing happiness of the type he has not preached before: "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive."

Andrew Garman with Emily Donahoe and Linda Powell
Photo by Joan Marcus

Yet it's not long after, once the message soaks in for Paul's flock, that cracks start appearing. And when one of the members of the real-life (and huge, and terrific) choir that's positioned in pride of place on Dane Laffrey's soulfully cheesy set, steps forward to challenge her pastor's beliefs, well, the fires of that place that doesn't actually exist start licking up around Paul's feet. And we see how, even (or perhaps especially) amid attempts to strip it away from metaphorical and literal gospel truth, context truly is everything. And Hnath's play, which starts off looking as though it's headed one way, rapidly begins heading off in a very different direction.

To say more would be to spoil the bevy of surprises Hnath has devised, which result in an edge-of-your-seat treatment about the way we all approach belief in any of life's biggest dilemmas. Across 100 well-greased minutes, Hnath forces us to confront how far we're willing to go for what matters to us, and what sacrifices we're prepared to make in order to defend our ideas and ideals. That he manages it entirely without villains—Paul, Joshua, and Jenny, as well as Paul's wife Elizabeth and a church elder named Jay, are all thoroughly layered characters who give us plenty of reasons to either take their sides or abandon them—and without denigrating powerful belief systems of any sort—is an accomplishment that pushes The Christians straight to textual success.

As a play in performance, however, the seams are not invisible. Though its implications stretch well beyond just those of present-day, commercial Christianity, the depth of discussion about topics related to it may put off theatregoers who aren't well versed or interested in it. The ending is also unsatisfyingly abrupt, as if Hnath wanted to leave things open-ended but didn't care whether he did so neatly. And the entire thing is filtered through the rocky concept of treating every line of dialogue as though it were a sermon or part of a high-tech passion play. The characters speak nearly exclusively into microphones cranked to ear-thumpingly high (and occasionally muffled) volume, and there are no other transitions between scenes; everything occurs as if on the rostrum of this church, and figuring out what parts of the action are public and which are private becomes a full-time activity.

True, perhaps director Les Waters could have staged these sections better. But his staging throughout is otherwise solid, and under his guidance the actors are brimming with affecting understatement; and Hnath never justifies it in the script anyway, leaving it to play as an unnecessary gimmick rather than the pointed Brechtian homage it feels it was it was intended to be. This doesn't sink the evening, but it doesn't help.

Superlative performances compensate for a lot here, beginning with Andrew Garman. He's wonderful at investing Paul with a rock-ribbed certitude that is at once embracing and off-putting, and contorts itself into fascinating new shapes and colors as the structural limitations and defects (and their impact on others) of his new approach become increasingly clear. Larry Powell is likewise serenely powerful as Joshua, showing us a man who, in absolute accordance with Hnath's crafting of the man as someone religion rescued from the streets, is forever at odds with his own better and worse natures. As Elizabeth, Linda Powell brings an arresting sophistication to a woman who becomes an unsung victim of her husband's spiritual largesse. The roles of Jenny and Jay are much smaller (essentially a scene each), but in essaying them Emily Donahoe and Philip Kerr hit with maximum force.

So, too, does The Christians overall, despite its presentational stumbles. Hnath hones in, with quick and accurate devastation, on the kinds of fears and misgivings that define turning oneself over completely to anything or anyone, and that leave us less sure than when we started. "I believe what I believe because I know it is true," Paul testifies to himself at one point, "but why do I know it's true? It's a feeling. And where did that feeling come from?" He concludes it's God, but you sense that Hnath acknowledges that's but one answer of many drifting within a universe of infinite questions. While he's exploring them with the reverent richness he does at his best here, there's no place you'd rather be than right by his side.

The Christians
Through October 11
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets and current performance schedule: TicketCentral

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