Thursday, October 08, 2015

New York, Day Seven: "The Christians" and "Hand to God"

This is one of those occasions when I wish I wasn’t seeing 15 shows in 10 days, and writing reviews of each for you.  For The Christians, Lucas Hnath’s new play that just opened at Playwrights Horizons, is so thought-provoking and so interesting on so many levels, that I’d prefer to have a few days to think it over, and a nice, long, uninterrupted day of writing in which to share those thoughts with you.
But, I don’t have that time. There is work to do, another review to write, and another show to see and review this evening.  (And another tomorrow and two more on Wednesday…)  So let’s get right to it. The Christians is the most interesting and compelling new play I’ve seen in a long time.  Perhaps not since John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable, which staggered me with its brilliance when I saw it during previews in its first off-Broadway run.  

The play takes place in a megachurch of the sort run by Victoria and Joel Osteen or Rick Warren. What started as a tiny storefront organization with a handful of congregants has bloomed into a giant facility with arena seating for thousands, classrooms, a clutch of associate pastors and a board of directors watching over the business aspects of the operation. This growth is due in large part to the charisma of Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman – sounding amazingly like William H. Macy), beloved by his flock.
When audiences walk into the theater at Playwrights Horizons, they could be forgiven for thinking they are actually in church, as the set mirrors the sort of designs one could find in any megachurch: bland, massive, inoffensive in its attempt to be inspirational.  And what is a church but another sort of theater?  Especially when there is a 22-member robed choir (assembled from a rotating group of 150 singers) upstage, opening the service/show with a couple of gospel numbers, followed by the entrance of Pastor Paul, his wife, an assistant pastor and one of the church’s board members, all of whom take seats on the stage in front of the choir.

At this service, Pastor Paul begins the proceedings with the proud announcement that the church has finally – after years of paying for the construction of the giant facility in which he preaches – become debt-free.  (An especially daunting challenge when one has built a church with a “baptismal as big as a swimming pool.”)  He then immediately follows this announcement with a sermon in which he lays out a revolutionary new theology for the church: hell doesn’t exist, and you don’t have to even believe in God for him to save you.

As you might imagine, this causes some discord among the members and leadership, who have had decades of faith rocked by this pronouncement – especially Associate Pastor Joshua, whom Pastor Paul converted as a troubled young man and mentored into his current role.  Joshua simply isn’t ready to give up what he believes as God’s unchanging word.

The Christians isn’t experimental, it doesn’t mess with timelines or points of view, but Hnath and director Les Waters have embraced one fascinating approach to the delivery of dialogue by having virtually every line spoken into a handheld microphone.  This begins naturally enough when Pastor Paul takes the lectern at the top of the show/service to begin his sermon – but it never lets up.  Every character has his/her own microphone, and even when it becomes clear that we are no longer in the service that began the show, everyone still speaks into a microphone.  Which makes intimate conversations ostensibly conducted in offices and while lying in bed both off-putting and strangely compelling.  

The Christians would make a perfect matinee/evening double header with The Book of Mormon, as they raise similar issues about the nature of faith – albeit in wildly different ways.

But whatever you do, make sure if you have the chance that you get yourself tickets to this mesmerizing work of playwright Lucas Hnath.

This self-described “new American play,” should – based on its subject matter – have been a contender as a companion piece to The Christians or The Book of Mormon, half of a double bill focused on the issues of faith and its limitations.  Unfortunately, despite plenty of sometimes biting (but almost always profane) humor, Hand to God fizzles when it should sizzle like the flames of hell.

The set-up is interesting: Jason (Steven Boyer) is a young man trapped (not literally) in a church basement, where his mother Margery (Geneva Carr) leads a class in Christian puppetry.  But the puppet Jason creates (which he calls Tyrone) is anything but loving, kind, or filled with charity.  Tyrone, in fact, may be the devil.  More accurately, he may be the devil inside Jason, for it is Jason who makes Tyrone move and gives him voice.  All those awful, hateful (but often sarcastic and clever) things one wishes they could say? Tyrone says them.  He’s Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog – with even less of a filter.  

Though there are plenty of laughs here (the puppet sex is amazing, making Avenue Q’s trysting look positively soft-core), Hand to God ultimately ignores the larger issues it could raise and satisfies itself with being little more than a very long sketch, with no real dramatic (or comedic) arc.  It’s perfect as an off-Broadway show (which is where it began), but doesn’t have what Broadway audiences are looking for – which is probably why it’s playing to less than half-full houses.

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