By Tulis McCall
The palm fronds have been laid out on the path that Lucas Hnath’s The Christians has followed to get to Playwrights Horizons. This production was featured and praised as part of The Humana Festival this past summer. A London production has just opened, and the play has already been produced in several major cities in the United States. A Los Angeles production is scheduled at the Mark Taper Forum.
It seems that Mr. Hnath (pronounced Nayth) has struck a nerve. We are, after all, a Christian country. The only religious holidays we celebrate as a nation are Christian. All our presidents have been Christian with only one Catholic in the bunch. The majority of the members of Congress are Christians. Jewish folk have made it to the Supreme Court in recognizable numbers. Every other performance award winner praises Jesus (not certain about the folks who don’t win). It is, however, a rarity for any other religion other than Christianity to be publicly celebrated. We tout ourselves as a melting pot, but so far it is the Christians 10 and the non-Christians 0 in the “positive public” eye.
So when Lucas Hnath writes a play about a set of beliefs that are at the center of some mainstream mega churches, we sit up and pay attention. Whether we are believers or not, we at least know about the folks who are – we see them often enough. When these folks have a falling out, it is a major car wreck on the Freeway to Salvation and we want to watch.
Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman) has had a personal revelation. He is celebrating the now debt-free and unnamed church that he founded. The setting is the stage of this enormous church that we are told seats thousands (that would be us in the peanut gallery). Everything visible on the church’s stage (including a mighty choir) is brand new, and best that can be bought – except for the microphones that are tethered with cables. Pastor Paul has a three part sermon for his flock today. It is long, and it is lyrical, and it is inspired. Pastor Paul has come to a crossroads where the path to Hell is questionable.
Prior to this morning, the cornerstone of this Christian Church is one that takes no prisoners. If a person is not baptized there is no hope for salvation. They go directly to Hell. They do not pass Go. They do not collect $200. Pastor Paul announces that he believes this to be an unjust and ungodly penance. He is making a unilateral decision to lead his flock down the path of “Hell is on Earth. Death transits us to Heaven. No matter who are or what you have done here.” Every bad earthly things would be washed away, and we would all share in the beauty of Heave – which would make it Heaven, right?
This ruffles some major feathers – basically everyone on the stage with him: His wife Elizabeth (Linda Powell), his Associate Pastor Joshua (Larry Powell), the Church Elder Jay (Philip Kerr) and Jenny (Emily Donahue) a member of the choir. The play takes place over an unspecified amount of time, but long enough for us to hear these people speak after much thought and deliberation. Hnath’s points are skillfully presented with weight on both sides of the issue, and this is how he wants it. The writing does, however, take on a tepid quality for the first two thirds of the evening as the reasoned debates ebb and flow without a hiccup. (Each of these five performers brings a singular depth to their characters. The performances are nuanced. Their stories are unique and universal at the same time.) It is not until more than two thirds of the play has passed that we come to the relationship at its center. When Elizabeth begins to speak, we go to the heart of what is really at stake. It is this marriage.
The rest is a fine tuned debate that would rank with a Gore Vidal/Christopher Buckley outing. And it does get us thinking – well, it did me.
But when Elizabeth starts to let the words tumble out about her fear, her resentment, the betrayal, the questions she has about not only her husbands beliefs but about his actions, or lack thereof as far as communicating with her is concerned, the temperature in the room spikes. Linda Powell is a powerhouse, and Hnath orchestrates it so that she is given the job of backup listener for most of the play. When she opens up her voice and her heart, all bets are off. The rawness continues when Joshua returns to go head to head with Pastor Paul one more time. These scenes are transfixing.
As you leave the theatre there is a board with the questions, “What faith did you grow up with?” and “Have your beliefs changed?” On another board, you can use post it strips to answer “Do you believe in a higher power?” and “How often do you attend a house of worship?” Hnath is needling us into more thought, more discussion.
This is a massively well-intentioned play that pits people, each of whom believes that they are acting according to the voice of their God, against one another. Each believes that s/he is acting out of faith and not out of personal stubborn ego. They are on a playing field from which there is no release. They are tethered to one another.
As are we all. What do you do when you love or care about someone who believes in the exact opposite way? How do you make room? Or should you? Is there a right and wrong, or is the whole thing best left to “To Be Continued”? Hnath offers only questions that hit home and leaves the answers to us. This is not a new concept – think Greek tragedies here. It is, however, an updated examination focused on a specific corner of our society that rarely gets a balanced treatment.
The one technical question is why the microphones and why the cords? People are tripping all over themselves managing them, and eventually this device becomes a distraction. We watch the actors dealing with the props instead of listening to what they are saying. There are already plenty of obstacles in these relationships. Adding a literal barrier feels like overkill.
THE CHRISTIANS by Lucas Hnath, Directed by Les Waters
WITH Emily Donahoe, Andrew Garman, Philip Kerr, Larry Powell and Linda Powell. The production also features a rotating twenty-person choir drawing singers from all five boroughs.
Playwrights Horizons (Tim Sanford, Artistic Director; Leslie Marcus, Managing Director) and Center Theatre Group (Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Stephen D. Rountree, Managing Director), present the New York premier of THE CHRISTIANS, a new play by Lucas Hnath at Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater (416 West 42nd Street). The limited engagement will play through Sunday evening, October 11. (Following the New York run, this production of THE CHRISTIANS will be presented in its Los Angeles premiere at The Mark Taper Forum from December 2, 2015 through January 10, 2016, with an Opening Night of December 13.)