Monday, September 21, 2015

Off-Broadway Review: The Christians TOP PICK


The Christians Will Seem Like a Page Out of the Sunday Service Program to Some
By Lauren Yarger
The choir/worship team sings multiple choruses of a song you never have heard. The pastor gives a mostly boring,  four-point sermon in which not very much is said around humorous anecdotes and references to finances to pay off a huge mega-church building mortgage.

The shocking difference between this scene and just about any Sunday service in a contemporary Protestant church  (megachurch or not) is that this one takes place on  New York theater stage – it opens the season at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, to be exact – in The Christians, written by Lucas Hnath.

I have experienced a lot of plays that try to incorporate the Christian experience (or a Christian character), but have seen very few that show an understanding of faith beyond creating stereotypes of judgmental, dim-witted, usually closeted homosexual Republicans. A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Creek by Kia Corthron (which, interestingly, also had a run at Playwrights Horizons back in 2010) was one of the few to get the portrayal of a devout Christian right. And now there’s Hnath’s The Christians.

The realities explored here aren’t all positive, however. In fact, they are pretty negative, but not in a Christian-bashing way. The Christians provides a glaring reflection in the mirror for many churches, but more so, it’s an unflinching study of the personal crisis of faith many people in America are experiencing.

Flanked by his wife, Elizabeth (Linda Powell), Elder Jay (Philip Kerr), Associate Pastor Joshua (Larry Powell), and a robed choir in the loft behind them on stage, Senior Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman) nonchalantly moves through his sermon points, while giving praise for the recent payoff of the church’s mortgage on it huge building (faithfully designed by Dane Laffrey in modern, light wood trim with a carpeted platform that will make many churchgoers feel right at home):
·         Where Are We Today?
·         A Powerful Urge
·         The Fires of Hell

It’s when he hits point number four, “A Radical Change” that the congregation wakes up. There’s a crack in the foundation of their faith, Paul tells the congregation.  God told him (while the pastor was on the toilet, apparently), that they have had it all wrong and that from this moment on, their church no longer will believe in Satan or in hell, or that its beliefs are the only way to salvation.

Reluctantly, Joshua steps to the podium and admits he struggles with this new direction.  (Les Waters tightly directs the action, which has the characters using hand-held microphones to talk to each other, as well as to the congregation). Pastor Paul begins an interrogation of sorts, challenging each example of scripture Joshua offers as proof that the bible supports the existence of hell as a destination of torment for those who do not know Jesus Christ.

The twisting of words turns into a contest of wills and Joshua challenges Paul to let the congregation vote on which of them they choose to follow. To his surprise, only 50 congregants side with Joshua and he leaves the church to start a new congregation.

Later that week, Elder Jay pays Pastor Paul a visit in his office (effectively played out right on the same platform with the hand-held mics while the others, in subdued lighting, bow their heads in prayer). Jay shares concerns about losing Joshua, who had been popular with the youth, who enjoyed trips into the community with him to share their faith with unbelievers.

That very act -- telling people that they are sinners -- is what has Paul convinced he is right in letting Joshua go, however.

“How do you think it makes people feel to be pulled aside and told that they’re sinners? . . . To be told, ‘Hey — you're bad, you're a bad person and you should feel bad about yourself,”  he asks.

“I worry, yes, I do worry, a little, about what happens when you tell a congregation that they don't need to believe — then I have to wonder if that makes them feel like going to church isn't so important,”   Jay responds.

The next Sunday, Jenny (Emily Donahoe), a meek member of the choir, steps forward to share her testimony (for those of you not familiar, a testimony is a personal story of how a person came to faith, or of how God has been working in a person’s life), but segues into a bunch of burning questions for Pastor Paul.

·         What about those bible passages where Jesus does talk about hell?
·         If there is no punishment, why should we be good?
·         What about Hitler? Is he in heaven then too if everyone ends up there?
·         And did Pastor Paul wait to share his controversial new belief system until after the church debt was paid off because he knew he might lose some attenders putting money in the collection plate?

Soon, Jenny, Elder Jay and even Elizabeth withdraw support and the church is in trouble. Pastor Joshua comes back to visit with Paul and reveals some of his own struggles with being able to stand firm in one of the most realistic conversations about faith I ever have seen on stage.

Though the main theme of The Christians brings to mind the controversial “everybody-goes-to –heaven”, feel-good” ministry that Joel Osteen and other prosperity preachers have been accused of, The Christians, on a deeper level, asks some pretty hard (and fair) questions about what we believe and why we believe it – and how much are we willing to sacrifice for our faith.

Though playwright Hnath declines to comment on his personal beliefs, the reality he captures in this play is evidence of his intimate understanding of the controversies of church life and of the personal struggles involved in a deeper walk of faith.

“A church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see. A place where the invisible is – at least for a moment – made visible,” he says, and for an hour and a half at Playwrights Horizons, Christian lives appear for our inspection, aided by spot-on performances.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the play, I had to wonder whether many of its subtle truths about church services and practices would be lost on those in the audience who haven’t experienced church like this. Would they be chuckling like me and appreciating the scathing commentary being made as the choir obliviously “leads the congregation in worship” by singing endless versus of a song while people stand looking back at them blankly, not singing, because they don’t know the song (which happens every Sunday at just about every contemporary Christian church in America when rock-star worship leaders croon melody-less tunes)?

Would they pick up on the “submissive wife” doctrine in Elizabeth’s silence on the church platform and in Paul’s neglecting to inform her of his new doctrinal direction before announcing it to the flock? Would they realize that the truths of Joshua’s struggles  -- with having to admit people he loved are in hell -- are almost never addressed in Christian churches, who are happy to preach that strangers who don’t know Jesus are hell-bound, but who happily use phrases like “being at rest” and “being in a better place” when discussing the unbelieving mom or dad who just passed?

I think some of the complexity of these questions and the real issues of faith will be lost.Where Christians or nonbelievers alike will be able to relate, however, is in the apologetics, because grappling with faith, or the lack of it, is the stuff of life.

To quote Pastor Paul:
“I believe what I believe because I know it is true—but why do I know it's true?—it's a feeling. And where did that feeling come from?—God. God put it there—but how do I know it's God that put it there?—I know it's God because I believe God is there—but how do I know God is there? because there's a feeling he put inside of me—but. . .”

More information:
The production features a rotating 20-person choir including individual singers from all five NY boroughs. The choir's makeup is different at each performance.

Costume Design by Connie Furr Soloman, Lighting Design by Ben Stanton; Sound Design by Jake Rodriguez. 


Following the New York run, this production will be presented in its Los Angeles premiere at The Mark Taper Forum from Dec. 2 through Jan. 10. Don’t miss it.

The Christians is extended through Oct. 25 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd St., NYC. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2:30 and 8 pm and Sundays at 2:30  and 7:30 pm. Tickets $75: www.TicketCentral.com; 212-279-4200.

Christians might also like to know:
-- No content notes. Go see it and bring someone with whom you have been talking about faith...

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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