At the pulpit of an American megachurch, Paul, the pastor, delivers a pivotal sermon, the final section of which he’s titled “A Radical Change.” After attending a conference of fellow pastors in Orlando, he’s found himself thinking anew. He no longer believes in hell a as a literal, fiery place, and, he tells his congregation, neither should they. “We are no longer a church that says, ‘My way is the only way,’” he tells them. “We are no longer that kind of church.” Thus begins Lucas Hnath’s challenging, faith-driven new play The Christians, now playing at Playwrights Horizons.
What feels liberating to Paul (Andrew Garman, likably complicated) brings up a multitude of questions amongst not just the congregation but also his family and his colleagues. His associate pastor Joshua (Larry Powell, impassioned), a popular leader in the church community, voices his concerns and is quickly driven out of the church. His own wife (Linda Powell), who can’t help clinging to fire and brimstone, struggles with the fallout, as does Jay (Philip Kerry), a church elder who worries for the church’s future, and Jenny (Emily Donahoe), a mightily confused congregant.
It’s easy to imagine a play in New York with a title like The Christians taking a deeply cynical, possibly heavy-handed approach to religion. So it’s refreshing that Hnath’s play digs deeper in its examination of faith, exploring the ambiguities of religious belief without resorting to swipes and potshots. A poignant scene between Paul and Joshua, in which Joshua describes to his former mentor his struggles with his mother’s resistance to his faith, is particularly moving in its earnestness.
Part of the skepticism leveled at Paul is the nitty-gritty of the hermeneutics (the interpretation of the Bible, especially to do with various translations of the text) that he’s imposing upon the congregation. The other part has to do with Paul’s timing, which is suspect because his announcement of this great proposed sea change comes just as the church is paying off the massive debts associated with its huge facility.
Paul never really explains that concern away, but the doubt lingering in the air is enough to shake the foundations of the church to its core, possibly for good. Hnath, in his stage directions for the play, dictates that all characters will speak with microphones throughout the play, in this case corded mics attached to stands placed in front of blue-upholstered wooden throne-like seats on stage. The play, which begins in a very public setting with Paul’s sermon, eventually finds its protagonists in more private quarters – but the corded mics are still there, even when the characters’ voices are a mere whisper – a tactic that Hnath and director Les Waters use to full effect.
It’s the blurred lines between private beliefs and public ones, between interpreting and believing, that make up the meat of The Christians and that make it as fascinating as it is. It’s a play that’s likely to prompt lively post-show debates about religion amongst audience members – about faith and its intersection with imagination, at the very least – but its fixation with ideology also means it comes across a bit coldly. Though we’re let into these characters’ private spheres for brief glimpses into their lives outside of church, it’s difficult to empathize much with a mega-pastor and his wife when so much of their discourse exists on a purely ideological plane. Some audience members will be willing to go on that intellectual ride regardless of its lack of emotional punch, but others will find themselves missing a bit more peripheral detail to support the ideological quandaries that Hnath presents in his ambitious piece.