Have Faith in “The Christians”

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Don’t expect playwright Lucas Hnath to offer anything resembling a traditional approach to the theater. Certainly not if his A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney is to be reckoned with. Certainly not with The Christians at Playwrights Horizons, which will get people talking 19 to the dozen, and for good reason.

At this furnace-hot Hnath opus, thanks to Dane Laffrey’s stunning version of a church interior, the entering audience immediately has the impression of wandering into a Sunday church service. The impression grows when a 20-member choir in blue and white robes (uncredited in the program) enters underneath a representation of several crosses and begins to sing a rousing hymn under the musical direction of Karen Dryer (at stage left, on electric Yamaha).

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Following the hymn — enlivened by one hyper-enthusiastic chorister in the first row — Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman), his wife Elizabeth (Linda Powell), associate pastor Joshua (Larry Powell) and elder Jay (Philip Kerr) arrive and sit in high-backed seats. Seconds later, Pastor Paul rises to deliver his sermon in the best striding-back-and-forth-across-the-stage manner of an evangelical.

The sermon covers enough ground to get Pastor Paul from here to East Japip. It’s not only the kind of sermon audiences are unlikely to expect, it’s one that his parishioners (who are understandably priding themselves on paying off a recent church expansion) are unprepared for.

Andrew Garman as Pastor Paul.
Hell hath no fury: Andrew Garman as Pastor Paul.

Pastor Paul relates a story that he recently heard about a non-Christian boy who died after rescuing his sister from a fire. While sitting on the toilet, he explains, he reexamined his understanding of hell; he questions whether the boy must be consigned to hell for not having found Jesus before his death. He then confesses that his ruminations have led him to a kind of conversion: there is no such place as hell — other than the hell of living an immoral life in the present.

To substantiate his bombshell of a claim, Pastor Paul dives into a pointed digression about translations, explaining that the Bible word for hell is “Gehenna” — which is Greek for “garbage dump.” Having thrown a curve into the pews, the pastor has introduced doubt into the minds of his flock. (A companion piece to this play is clearly John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt.)

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But not so fast, says associate pastor Joshua, taking issue with Paul’s conclusion, which prompts Paul to poll the congregation. He asks parishioners to drop a slip of paper onto the collection tray with either his or Joshua’s name on it.

The vote comes out overwhelmingly in Paul’s favor. Only 50 parishioners write Joshua’s name, at which point Joshua and his supporters leave the building. But as any savvy theatergoer instantly knows, that’s hardly the last repercussion. We know that Paul’s radical questioning of belief will lead to devastating results.

Those results are Hnath’s focus for the remainder of his 90-minute one-act. They won’t be itemized here, but it’s fair to say that, before the playwright is done, Pastor Paul hears from Jay, the unctuously diplomatic elder, from congregation-and-chorus-member Jenny (Emily Donahoe), and his wife Elizabeth, who has heretofore sat silently, as pastors’ wives often do.

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It’s possible that Playwrights Horizons audiences, presumably mostly liberal and analytic, will agree with Pastor Paul’s newfound convictions, but that doesn’t mean Hnath does. Indeed, the playwright doesn’t declare his beliefs so much as allows the characters to speak for themselves, pushing ticket holders to decide to what degree Pastor Paul’s personal revelation is beneficial.

Put out to pastor: Andrew Garman and Larry Powell
Putting out to pastor: Garman and Larry Powell.

Jenny, who has timidly written her dilemmas down, brings up issues that come close to stopping Pastor Paul. The most trenchant is whether Pastor Paul waited to declare his revelation until after the church debts were paid. She also wants to know where, if there is no hell, Hitler is, a question that truly sets off many alarms.

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The increasingly incensed Elizabeth, no longer retiring and reticent, has her own concerns. Why didn’t Pastor Paul mention the contents of his sermon to her? Though it was established earlier that theirs was love at first sight, now she’s unmoored about the strength of their union.

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As directed by Les Waters and played by the cast, Hnath’s efforts to present balanced arguments pay off. Garman, especially, is so convincing as Pastor Paul that spectators may forget they’re in a theater and not in a sanctuary. (According to the program, the time is “The 21st Century” and the place is “America.”) Everyone else on the altar/stage is every bit as persuasive. When Donahoe steps out of the choir ranks to press Jenny’s misgivings, she gives verisimilitude a new face.

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There is a small hitch to The Christians. Since most of the action takes place during the church service, the characters carry mikes. Once or twice, however, locales shift — to Pastor Paul’s office, to his marital bed — yet Waters still has them gabbing into mikes. Maybe something about skewed human communication is intended, but it’s an awkward choice if so.

Not that, at the end of the day it diminishes the power of The Christians to forcibly present the myriad beliefs of a population — and the seeming impossibility of reconciling them.