Los Angeles Theater Review: THE CHRISTIANS (Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum)

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by Tony Frankel on December 18, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles

CROSSFIRE

Between religious zealots, especially those who use the word of God to control the populace rather than to create peace, and the liberation of a new world—gay marriage, Roe v. Wade—more and more people are leaving organized religion. Especially in America. A recent study indicated that millennials are leaving the church in droves. Some Christians believe that the flock will return when we rethink 5_TC083-LBiblical interpretation while others believe that many Americans are leaving the church because the church is drifting from the authority of Scripture.

The debate between Fundamentalism and Reform is the fulcrum of Lucas Hnath’s compelling but dramatically unsound play The Christians. For Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman), the dialogue isn’t about how many people come to his newly constructed megachurch. Nor is it about Fire and Damnation. He believes we have misinterpreted hell as an eternal fiery inferno; instead, he sees hell as a place of torment that resides in one’s soul on an everyday basis. His announcement of this comes during a sermon, and the repercussions are seen through his associate pastor, Joshua (Larry Powell), his wife Elizabeth (Linda Powell), a church elder named Jay (Philip Kerr), and Jenny (Emily Donahue), a fresh congregant. In 90 thought-provoking minutes, Hnath raises some irrefutable and fascinating diatribes and encomiums on religion, all of which I found thoroughly diverting.

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It’s presented as a Sunday sermon, with the Mark Taper Forum stage converted into a church, which is appropriate given that megachurches have comfortable theater seating, large stages, and a minimum of religious symbols (there is a large backlit cross center stage). Even the paneling on Dane Laffrey’s set matches the permanent ones on the theater walls; and notice the perfectly vacuumed blue carpet. Seated behind the stage is a choir made up of over two dozen singers; choir director Scott Anthony plays organ stage left. Without costume changes or major light cues, the church becomes an office and a bedroom as well.

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Unfortunately, Hnath has written himself into a corner. The play covers an amazing amount of territory—from the business of a church to the necessity of Fundamentalism as a life-saving tonic—but the drama becomes about the issues and not about the people with the issues, which makes this dramatically inert. Still, Les Waters’ direction makes much of the evening look positively extemporaneous (except the sudden disappearance of the choir), and Powell’s 15-minute sermon at the top is worth the price of admission; when he hesitates or stutters mid-thought, you may think he’s flubbing lines, but he’s not—the character is thinking some of this up on the spot, and Hnath writes it as such. Ms. Donahue is especially fabulous as the mousy but confrontational young churchgoer who sees Paul’s thinking as a betrayal. Normally, I would rail against this type of style over storytelling, but too much of the actual conversation convinced me that there’s a story which needs to be told—even if it’s told imperfectly.

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13_TC378-Lphotos by Craig Schwartz

The Christians
Center Theatre Group / Playwrights Horizon
Mark Taper Forum
Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave
ends on January 10, 2016
for tickets, call 213.628.2772
or visit Center Theatre Group

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