Church, theater; theater, church — sometimes you can’t tell the difference. That makes John Patrick Shanley’s “Storefront Church” a smart choice with which to reopen the handsomely restored theater-in-a-church that has housed the Atlantic Theater Company for over 25 years. The play posits a showdown over faith vs. good works between a Bronx politician and the minister of a Pentecostal pocket church. Topic has merit, and the production brings out some outstanding talent. But unlike the tightly wrapped “Doubt,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that began the scribe’s “Church and State” trilogy, this final installment is wordy, unfocused and unresolved.
Personable Giancarlo Esposito (“Breaking Bad”) strikes the perfect balance of honest idealism and crass ambition to play the Bronx politician who finds spiritual redemption in this Saroyan-esque fantasy.
As borough president, Donaldo Calderon (Esposito) is the go-to guy when Jessie Cortez (Tonya Pinkins, who can do no wrong) is about to go into foreclosure for failing to keep up the mortgage payments on the modest building she owns. Warm-hearted Jessie and her old-school-Jewish-liberal husband Ethan (Bob Dishy, good to see back in the saddle) think it’s just a matter of getting the bank loan officer (a wonderful deadpan turn by Zach Grenier) to go easy on her and relax the payment terms.
The politically savvy Calderon knows better. Going to bat for Jessie could mean making a compromising deal with the bank CEO, played with friendly menace by Jordan Lage. Not a smart move for an ambitious politico, but the pressure on the poor guy is fierce because his mother, who is Jessie’s best friend, co-signed for the loan.
Calderon sees a better way out of this jam. If he can collect months of back rent from the freeloading minister of the storefront church in Jessie’s building, her loan payments would be back on track.
Here’s where the play gets metaphysically spooky, because pastor Chester Kimmich (a weird but charismatic presence, in Ron Cephas Jones’ haunted perf) is in the grip of a spiritual malaise, waiting for a sign before he can take up preaching again. Sizing up Calderon, he finds the fallen-away believer who needs to be healed.
As director, Shanley engineers the elaborate plot prep for a final scene that finds everyone crowded into the little church for a Sunday morning service. But by this time, Shanley the scribe seems to have lost interest in pastor Kimmich, whose rationale for stiffing his landlady on the rent and beating up on Donaldo for doing his honest work never made any sense in the first place. So the specious ideological debate between pastor and politician initiated in act one is not resolved.
Instead, the challenge thrown out by pastor Kimmich — “Does anybody here besides me feel dead?” — is picked up by the sad-sack loan officer, who has a full-blown meltdown. Grenier carries off this 11 o’clock number in great serio-comic style, but good luck finding the dramatic logic of it.
Tech tasks in the newly refurbished house are handled with the company’s usual professional efficiency. But lighting designer Matthew Richards and soundman Bart Fasbender must be super-happy to be working with updated equipment.