By Patrick Hurley
The personal need for religion in people’s lives, and how that shifts with time, is at the center of Lucas Hnath’s new play The Christians playing now through January 10 at the Mark Taper Forum.
The play takes place in a megachurch, complete with a full choir, run by progressive pastor Paul (Andrew Garmen), who delivers a four part sermon that proves to be as controversial as it is revelatory. His thesis? Hell is a place manufactured by man, and shouldn’t be taken literally. His argument is that the bible never speaks of hell in the terms that modern day Christians have come to believe in. And he has come to the realization that all human beings, regardless of their transgressions on Earth, will go to heaven. He then explains that he had these revelations while talking to God one night…while he was on the toilet. His revelation, and his sermon, however, does not sit well with his associate pastor Joshua (Larry Powell), who, after delivering a prayer, confronts Pastor Paul on his newfound belief. The two wage a verbal war of exegesis, wherein the only sure answers that can be attained are the uncertainties that religion provides. It is faith vs. faith, and there can be no absolution.
Next, one the church Elders, Jay (Philip Kerr) confronts Paul in a private conversation, though for the world of this play the microphones and set are still utilized as if the two were delivering a public sermon. Jay questions Paul’s timing. He suggests that it seems a bit strange that Paul should come to this revelation only after the church’s debts are entirely paid off. This further alienates Pastor Paul from those around him, and he is starting to become vilified for his need to evolve his religious beliefs.
Then a member of the choir, Jenny (Emily Donahoe) reads a letter to the congregation that asks Pastor Paul questions about his new beliefs, questions that again can only be answered with faith.
Finally, Pastor Paul is confronted by his up-to-then silent wife Elizabeth (Linda Powell), putting Paul in a dilemma where he must admonish either his beliefs or his integrity.
The play is structured very much in the style of Paul’s sermon. It is broken down into five parts, four confrontations and one explanation. It is a well-made problem play, but this problem is that the issue that is being debated cannot be solved. Which can be unsatisfying to someone who likes their storytelling wrapped up with a nice conclusion. So what is the play saying? Much like religions, we can all get something different from it. And while it is an intriguing and thought-provoking idea, that all religions, and therefore religious beliefs must evolve, this piece doesn’t really pack that much of a punch. Playwright Lucas Hnath uses biblical passages to further enhance Pastor Paul’s pragmatic approach to his beliefs, but the stakes don’t really feel all that high until more than halfway through the play when Jenny, in the plays most successful scene, begins questioning Paul.
Paul’s answer to a Hitler question, while obviously meant to be upsetting , is a bit on the nose, it’s too easy. The play, therefore, deals with a progressive pastor in a progressive world where even the Pope is making statements that are clearly pushing religion into a new era. It’s evolving everywhere, and with bigger ideas than this play really offers.
Director Les Waters keeps the play in a very specific style. The use of microphones for every scene was strange at first, but becomes a nice tool, specifically for the quieter moments. The actors are able to actually whisper. Conversely when they shout, it’s really loud, and jarring, in an effective way. The set, designed by Dane Laffrey is wonderfully authentic, and looks like a set you’d see a famous Evangelist preaching in front of on television.
The cast is exceptional, without exception. Andrew Garmen, specifically, gives an outstanding performance. His Pastor Paul is a man dedicated to telling the truth, but also unsure of himself and we can see the struggle manifest through the actor in every way. From the way he handles the microphone cord, which is great, to his inability to answer tough questions, Mr. Garmen never falters.
In the end, this is a fine production. The play doesn’t quite hit the heights that this subject matter could probably get to, but what it does it does well. It serves its purpose. And if it can create a further dialogue that brings people more understanding of each other and our views, then it has served a noble purpose indeed.
Playwrights Horizons and
The Actors Theatre of Louisville Production of:
By Lucas Hnath
Directed by Les Waters.
December 13- January 10, 2016
Mark Taper Forum
Performance Days and Times:
Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.
Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m.
Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.
Ticket Prices: $25 – $85
Center Theatre Group Audience Services at
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in Downtown L.A. 90012.