Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Christians **

My college roommate made a useful distinction between “interesting” and “enjoyable.” I would have to put this new play by Lucas Hnath now previewing at Playwrights Horizons, in the former category. Hnath’s ambition in tackling the thorny topic of religion, his unusual structuring, his stylistic choices such as having the actors only speak through microphones are all intriguing. And yet, the results, at least for me, were less than stirring. The imposing set that greets us shows the platform of a church, complete with burnished wood, five throne-like chairs, a gigantic illuminated cross, an organ and huge television screens. A choir of 20 serenades us. Four of the characters are seated. Each has a mic tethered to a cord. Paul (a plausibly charismatic Andrew Garman), pastor of the impressive megachurch that is celebrating paying off its debt, gives a sermon that includes a drastic reinterpretation of an important church tenet. Joshua (Larry Powell), the associate pastor, who cannot accept the new dogma, is forced to resign and takes 50 congregants with him. Church elder Jay (Philip Kerr) tries unsuccessfully to be a mediator. When Jenny (Emily Donahoe), a seemingly naive congregant emerges from the choir to give testimony, she raises a series of provocative questions both about the content of the sermon and its timing, Paul’s answers make a bad situation worse. When he turns to his wife Elizabeth (Linda Powell), who has been sitting there for an hour without saying a word, for support, he does not get the response he expects. Joshua returns briefly to explain his views to Paul. In an effective scene, we get Paul’s inner thoughts whispered through his mic. We can follow Paul’s deepening crisis through the way he handles his mic cord through the play, first wrangling it like a cowboy and eventually struggling not to get tripped by it. The ending of the play is quiet and flat. Dane Laffrey's set is a knockout. Connie Furr Soloman's costumes are apt. Les Waters's direction is assured. I admire Hnath’s bold ambition and look forward to his upcoming play at New York Theatre Workshop. I just wish the results had turned out better this time. Running time 95 minutes, no intermission.

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