by: Michael Bracken
Does hell really exist? Damned if I know.
But the congregants at the unnamed mega-church in Lucas Hnath’s The Christians at Playwrights Horizons all seem to think it does. At least they do as the play starts.
Then one Sunday, just after the church has become fiscally solvent, Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman) gives a provocative sermon. He challenges the church’s accepted teaching on hell and forgiveness. The subject of the sermon becomes the subject of the play.
Paul’s homily begins with a story he heard at an evangelical conference, told by a missionary stationed somewhere in the third world. It seems a bomb went off and a young man, not a Christian, ran into a store to save his little sister, rescuing her but catching on fire and ultimately dying in the process. The missionary expressed regret, but not at the boy’s death. He regretted that the boy had not been converted before he died. Not having embraced Jesus, the young man went to hell.
This set Paul to thinking. In fact, he had his own personal conversation with God, who told him there was no hell other than the one we create on earth. And this is the message he conveys to the faithful. The boy who saved his sister is in heaven.
A slow but certain rebellion ensues. Associate Pastor Joshua (Larry Powell) is the first to call Paul on his heretical musings. They engage in a battle of Biblical quotations with no clear winner. They put it to a vote by the congregation; Joshua loses and leaves, taking fifty church-goers with him.
In the course of time, Paul is challenged by elder Jay (Philip Kerr), choir member Jenny (Emily Donohoe), and his wife, Elizabeth (Linda Powell). Each has their own take on the situation, but it all goes back to the sermon. Jenny broadens the inquiry slightly by questioning the timing of the pronouncement. Why did Paul wait until after the church was in the black to propound his new views?
Echoes of A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt’s examination of Sir Thomas More’s dilemma, resound. But the two plays are distinguishable. More’s choice, between the Church of Rome and that of his king, is something he controls. And the situation is forced upon him by history. Most of all the stakes are higher: life vs. death. This takes the play from the theoretical to the crushingly physical.
The conflict in The Christians is also one of conscience, but it’s ethereal. There may or may not be a hell, but there’s nothing Paul or anyone else can do about it. Paul’s flock and even his wife are up for grabs, but his life is not on the line.
Paul’s sermon and especially his recounting the story of the immolated young man are affecting. Theology tied to flesh and blood is vibrant and compelling. But the boy fades while the doctrine remains. Even the completely corporeal fate of Paul and Linda’s marriage bed is mired in dogma. Jenny’s inquiry about timing opens up an avenue ripe for exploration, but it’s not pursued.
Les Waters’s direction is puzzling. Characters speak through microphones, which makes sense when they’re in the church but not when, for example, Linda and Paul are in their bedroom. Similarly, all the action is set within the front section of the church, even though it’s clear from the script the story has moved elsewhere. It’s confusing. Much of the play takes place after the day of the sermon, but the visuals would have you think otherwise.
Scenic designer Dane Laffrey’s rendering of the church is traditional and handsome, graceful but weighty. Especially effective are large inspirational projections of natural beauty: birds, mountains, and waterfalls.
Garman proves to have very broad shoulders, carrying the drama with casual nonchalance. His Paul is subtly enigmatic, principled or prideful or both. But he’s adrift on a sea of ideology, with no palpable harbor in sight.
Through October 11 at Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater (416 West 42nd Street). www.PHnyc.org. 95 minutes with no intermission.
Photos: Joan Marcus