Lucas Hnath’s soul-searching drama, “The Christians,” grabbed the eyeballs at the 2014 Humana Festival. Playwrights Horizons showed faith by opening its season with the play, about the crisis of belief ignited in a flock of Evangelical Christians when their pastor announces a radical departure from church doctrine. From there the show, directed by Humana artistisic director Les Waters, heads for the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. The play’s religious dialectic offers enough substance to satisfy true believers; but given the high level of industry interest, it remains to be seen whether it has enough drama to satisfy anyone outside its target audience.
Hnath (“Isaac’s Eye” and the upcoming “Red Speedo”) doesn’t identify the denomination or location of the church, but the creatives seems to clearly define it as a sedate Protestant congregation somewhere in Middle America.
Dane Laffrey’s set of the interior of a megachurch is all Danish Modern wood with stylized accents: a lucite pulpit, unadorned chairs, flat screens with soothing nature images, comforting gospel music and a giant cross eerily backlit (by designer Ben Stanton) and suspended from the back wall. The choir of local church singers is fresh-faced and sweet-voiced. And everyone in the cast is dressed (by costumer Connie Furr Soloman) in colorless Sunday clothes.
The problem with the play is that the cleric who sets off the hullabaloo that tears the congregation apart is just as bland as the scenery. To heighten this emotional distance (and spiritual alienation) between the preacher and his flock, all the characters whisper-speak into handheld microphones — even in intimate scenes between the pastor and his wife, Elizabeth, played with becoming modesty and a nice flash of passion by Linda Powell.
But if Pastor Paul is personally insipid (and suitably played so by Andrew Garman), his spiritual crisis is dynamite. At the top of the play, he preaches a sermon that opens with the good news that the church’s longstanding debt has finally been paid off and ends with the astounding declaration that “We are no longer a congregation that believes in Hell.”
The bulk of the sermon deals with Pastor Paul’s personal journey from spiritual doubt to enlightenment. Distressed by the doctrine that unbaptized non-Christians — even the most saintly among them — must be tossed into the fiery pits of hell, he comes to the humane conclusion that there is no hell. At least, not in the literal sense of biblical teachings.
In other words, he discovers the beauty and wisdom of metaphor. “Satan” can refer to humanity itself, in all its cruelty. We ourselves are the “devils” who torment one another with acts of inhumanity every day of our lives.
As for Hell, the Pastor’s God tells him: “You wanna see Hell? You look around,” and look no further than that mass of humanity. “They are in Hell.”
But alas, some of the souls in this congregation are unable to share Pastor Paul’s fundamentally radical views. (And strange to say, he seems surprised by this.) Among these naysayers, his charismatic associate pastor, Joshua (in a fiery perf from Larry Powell), makes the most impassioned argument for the orthodox reading of scripture. In a quieter vein, Emily Donahoe offers the touching testimony of a church congregant who feels “lonely and scared” without the old doctrines.
Instead of respecting and dealing with their fears and doubts, Pastor Paul informs these skeptics that they are free to leave the church. Which is an extremely stupid move for someone who made his decision unilaterally, without consulting church elders, his associate pastor or even his wife, and without preparing his flock from the pulpit and in bible study classes.
Indeed, he isn’t even primed when he’s challenged on specific thorny points. (So, if there’s no Hell, what do you do about Hitler?) Thoughtful, earnest, sincere — all that can be said of Pastor Paul. But if he wants to win debating points, he could really use some help from a wise old rabbi or a smart-aleck Jesuit fresh out of the seminary.