New York City Theater
Even the title has a double meaning. Does “The Christians” refer to a sect or an attitude? To its considerable credit, Lucas Hnath’s new drama at Playwrights Horizons is intellectually mysterious and enigmatic, challenging audiences to continue discussing what they’ve just seen in contrast to what they believe. Although the play’s two halves – religious and secular – don’t always jell, the evening is rife with conflict.
It all swirls around the concept of Hell and Heaven, Pastor Paul’s sermon begins by praising the very mega-church he runs., Starting as a tiny congregation, it outgrew several locations until it is, now, a huge place, seating thousands. A sign of prosperity is the 18-voice choir that opens with “Build your hopes on things eternal / Hold God’s unchanging hand.”
But change is in the air. Pastor Paul (a charismatic Andrew Garman), whose “conversion” may be taken as the inverse of St. Paul’s, tells the story of a young boy in an unnamed country who, after a car bomb blast, ran into the burning marketplace to fetch and save his little sister. She’s unscathed, but the boy burns to death.
Says the missionary who witnessed it all and told Paul about the tragedy, if only the boy had been converted to Christianity and been instantly baptized in the belief of Jesus as Lord, would he have been saved from the torments of Hell.
Contemplating this story, the pastor has a revelation that God tells him the boy is not in Hell but Heaven, at God’s side this very minute. Further, the possibility is that everyone, even murderers, go to Heaven where all sins are washed away.
That quasi-heretical message doesn’t go over too well with the tradition-minded flock or with Joshua, the evangelical associate pastor, who ups and leaves, taking a bunch of parishioners with him. Even worse, Jenny, a choir member confronts Paul, accusing him of airing his divisive views only after the church has been paid for. It’s an accusation echoed by Jay, a church elder, who worries about the financial impact if too many congregants leave.
But the biggest blow comes from Paul’s wife, Elizabeth, originally wooed with promises to bridge distances with communication. That Paul did not communicate his new beliefs to her beforehand causes her stress.
Beyond the domestic and internecine quarrels, playwright Hnath wonders which voice to listen to when expressing beliefs: God’s or one’s own. He doesn’t answer the question but, instead, gives us a play bold in its form (the players use microphones throughout, even when talking to each other), and where the “action” is almost all verbal.
Les Waters directs this 95-minute, intermissionless work with clarity and a firm hand that resists the idea of going for the Big Payoff. His actors follow suit: Linda Powell’s seething wife, Larry Powell’s pained Joshua, Philip Kerr’s quietly concerned elder and Emily Donahoe’s laid-back Jenny are believable to the point of upsetting the audience.
“The Christians” is neither satire nor polemic. It asks questions without answering them, leaving the audience both shocked and, perhaps, eager to explore further.
--David A. Rosenberg
Sept. 22, 2015