Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman) has just finished delivering the good news to his megachurch that they have finished paying off their debt when he drops a theological bombshell on his congregation. He has decided that he doesn't believe in Hell, and also doesn't believe that a person has to be Christian to get into Heaven. Associate pastor Joshua (Larry Powell) disagrees completely, leaving to form his own church. One of Paul's congregants, a poor woman named Jenny (Emily Donahoe), questions him publicly, causing many more parishioners to leave. But it's the anger of Paul's wife Elizabeth (Linda Powell) that causes him to wonder if his belief is wrong.
Garman does a nice job balancing Paul's duty to lead his church and present a good front with his personal doubts, but as written, Paul's motivation for changing his church in the first place is somewhat thin. Joshua is given more backstory than Paul, and Powell effectively portrays his anger and dismay at Paul's change, and is brilliant in a monologue about the death of his mother. Powell is blisteringly angry as Elizabeth in a fine performance, but Donahoe will linger in the memory longest as Jenny, whose simple questioning and rejection of Paul is powerful.
I'm presuming that the way the play is presented is specified in Hnath's script, so Les Waters' direction, which gets good work from his actors, isn't to blame. The major flaw in the writing is that it's essentially a theological debate pretending to be a play. The characters (with a couple of exceptions) don't have much character and exist simply to present opposing viewpoints in the religious argument. The second problem is in the staging, which is done as if it were a series of sermons to an audience. All the actors speak into microphones, creating a sense of artificial distance that does the piece no favors.
If Hnath had spent more time creating fully fledged characters and less on unusual presentation, this might have been a strong play. As it stands, it's a static thesis.
The Christians plays at the Mark Taper Forum through January 10, 2016. Tickets and info are available at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
The Center Theatre Group and Playwrights Horizons present The Christians by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Les Waters. Scenic Design, Dane Laffrey; Costume Design, Connie Furr Soloman; Lighting Design, Ben Stanton; Sound Design, Jake Rodriguez; Music Direction, Scott Anthony.