Katharine McLeod and Jamie Geiger; Credit Jim Ryan

Katharine McLeod and Jamie Geiger; Credit Jim Ryan

As Keith Richards and Mick Jagger told us all a long time ago – “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”  And that seems to be the through line of Renee Calarco’s The Religion Thing at The Cell Theater’ excellent space on 23rd Street.

Mo and Brian, Patti and Jeff are the two, thirty-something couples whose efforts to get what they want, draw us into their Washington-based world in Act One.    Mo’s a lapsed Catholic; and Brian, a lapsed Jew – lapses that seem irrelevant to their affluent, steady-as-she-goes lives.

They entertain Patti and Jeff.  Patti is Mo’s best friend, ‘though they have been out of touch recently.  Jeff is her new guy.   Mo and Brian know Patti as a big drinker and a balls-out party girl, and so, when Jeff tells them he met Patti in church, there’s a good deal of head swiveling confusion.  In fact, the new couple unpacks a steamer trunk of disturbing surprises that has everyone rethinking what they “have and have not.”

Playwright Calarco’s dialogue is fast, often funny, and completely genuine.

At the end of Act One, we’re engaged with these characters and interested in finding out how the bombshell, dropped just before the lights fall, will resolve.  Regrettably, this is the high point of our interest.

To be sure, the conflicts served up are ambitious—rooted as they are in religion, redemption, gender, and loyalty—raising issues of trust and commitment.  The second act offers not so much offer dramatic resolution as a kind of flabby, “find-an-ending” drama-class finish.

Wikipedia’s blithe analysis of the Stones’ song applies to The Religion Thing: “…captures the essence of initial optimism and eventual disillusion, followed by the resigned pragmatism in the chorus.”

Great in a classic song, but not quite enough for a two-act play.

The playwright opts for an unusual structure — opening the show with a standup comic before we get to the living room set where the real story begins.

In the comedian’s role, Curran Connor shows us the first of his four characters, who appear later as  “ghosts of meaningful moments past” visiting Mo, Brian, Patti, and Jeff.  Connor is a credible comic, a-more-than-plausible nun, a compelling Jewish patriarch, a sexy-if sleazy, ex-boyfriend, and a troublesome boss.  We don’t know if he has depth but he certainly has reach.

Jamie Geiger plays Brian with reserve, containing his conflict, but still letting us see it.   Danielle O’Farrell’s Patti is engaging in her desperation. Katharine McLeod’s Mo offers a vulnerability that belies the fierce confidence she’s peddling.  We watch Andrew W. Smith struggle with his character but don’t see him land.  An actor’s or director’s choice, perhaps.

The audience in this 52-seat room is right on top of Kevin Judge’s lean and remarkably flexible set. Director Douglas Hall makes voyeurs of us, leaving us little distance to judge.  Lighting from Ben Hagen and sound design from Amit Prakash keep the transitions tight.

The Religion Thing – By Renee Calarco; directed by Douglas Hall.

WITH: Curran Connor (Glick, Grampa, Sister Mark Kevin, Bill), Jamie Geiger (Brian), Danielle O’Farrell (Patti), Katharine McLeod (Mo), and Andrew W. Smith (Jeff).

Set designed by Kevin Judge: lighting by Ben Hagen; sound by Amit Prakash.  The producer is Michole Biancosino with Project Y Theatre Company.  Jessa-Raye Court did the costumes, Sarah Dunivant did the props, and stage manager Adrian Pena, with an assist from Ashley Olivia Epp kept things moving.

At the Cell Theater, 338 West 23rd Street in Manhattan; (646) 861-2253.  Through August 1st.