Audiences are often criticized for making noise with their cell phones, candy wrappers and too-loud quips to seatmates. But the crowd that surrounded me at Playwrights Horizons’ production of The Christians was as quiet as a mouse that had been born mute.
True, many of us have been conditioned from an early age to maintain silence in a House of Worship, which is where Lucas Hnath’s absorbing new play takes place. Still, we wouldn’t necessarily expect to see jaded New York theatergoers immediately cowed by the Pastor, the megachurch environment and a cross that’s as high as a mastodon’s eye.
Nobody dares make a sound, for this is Earnest Theater. Even a giggle would be tantamount to – well, laughing in church. But chances are genuine church services don’t have audiences as quiet as the one at The Christians.
Even when “Pastor Paul” states that the church has “a baptismal as big as a swimming pool,” nary a chuckle comes from the crowd. Of course, when he makes an outright joke, no one laughs because it simply isn’t very funny. Watching Pastor Paul look pleased that he got off what he truly believes is a good one does make us smile at his naiveté.
But it doesn’t make us laugh in scorn. We’re in church.
Perhaps a better reason for the silence is that the audience is paying rapt attention. The Christians is involving and devastating, a verbal hurricane that continues to accelerate right up to its denouement.
The audience functions as Pastor Paul’s congregation. “You stayed and you prayed,” he says directly to us in that euphonic way preachers speak in order to make their messages more inviting. Hence, the church has done very well in the ten years since it was founded.
Pastor Paul’s sermon today concerns a young man who didn’t believe in the same (unnamed) religion. For all his life, the cleric has assumed that if a person died without embracing “the one true faith,” he’d automatically be consigned to Hell. But the young man of whom Pastor Paul speaks made a courageously heroic move that unfortunately resulted in his death. Considering the valiant effort the deceased made, Pastor Paul now believes the lad isn’t in Hell simply because he bet on the wrong horse – er, religion.
Like so many men of the cloth, Pastor Paul couches what he says by citing his personal conversation with God, “quoting” what “The Lord said to me.” But changing an entire congregation’s belief system is far easier said than done. By telling his parishioners to abandon their lifelong beliefs, Pastor Paul is implying that they’ve been wrong all along. Everyone is reluctant to do that in any aspect of life, but especially in the religious one.
Assistant Pastor Joshua (a solid Larry Powell) starts out diplomatically when telling his boss “I find myself wrestling with your sermon, for it seems to go against everything our church believes.” Such peacekeeping cannot last long, and soon Joshua comes down to brassier tactics: “The Lord is telling me to reject what you say.”
Yes, Joshua believes that he too has been actively having a conversation with God. The parishioners will have to take his word for it, and, as Hnath implies, there are many in this world who do believe their pastors have a verbal pipeline to God.
Joshua was once a lost lonely boy who “needed something” until he met Pastor Paul and became his “spiritual son.” Will that famous expression “A boy doesn’t become a man until he beats up his father” come into play?
One member of the on-stage, oh-so-joyous, hand-clapping chorus does step forth: Jenny, whom actress Emily Donahoe makes into a timid mouse most unaccustomed to public speaking – at first. While she never raises her voice, she lets her opinions (and her boyfriend’s more pointed ones) make the noise, and increasingly finds strength.
At this point, Andrew Garman’s Pastor Paul shows that a religious leader isn’t used to being questioned, so when he is, he doesn’t quite know how to handle it.
Pastor Paul must worry that if the congregation loses faith in him his life will suddenly be Hell on Earth. Church Elder Jay (a solid Philip Kerr) has a different concern. For all the talk of God, Church is Big Business (although you’d never know it from its never filing a tax return). “We have our necks on the line in a big way,” Jay tells Pastor Paul – which is a euphemistic way of saying “Let’s keep raking in the money to which we’ve all become accustomed.”
Linda Powell, playing Pastor Paul’s wife Elizabeth, says absolutely nothing for literally the play’s first 60 minutes. The closest she comes to speaking is looking mortifyingly embarrassed when Pastor Paul mentions that she was wearing a pink pants suit when they first met. But she’ll soon complain to her husband, “I am just a preacher’s wife who sits behind you and nods my head.”
No longer. Expect a roar-filled confrontation for the play’s final half-hour with Ms. Powell commanding the stage. Even Pastor Paul’s intelligent question “What good is a good church that makes people feel bad?” doesn’t even shave any ice with her, let alone cut it.
Elizabeth offers some tongue- and mind-twisters: “Absolute tolerance depends on the intolerance of the intolerant.” She accuses him of “changing overnight,” which is indeed true, but when you have an epiphany, you have an epiphany. Even so, Elizabeth accuses him of being “incredible selfish” and brings in a real-world situation that’s of genuine concern – and we see that she’s right, too.
That’s the beauty of The Christians: Hnath plays fair with everyone. He gives each party ample time to express his point-of-view, and never succumbs to making anyone seem even remotely ridiculous so that we’ll side with the other side. One character isn’t a very gracious loser, and another doesn’t quite say what he means (“This new direction you’re taking us is exciting”) – not at first. But that’s about as severe as Christians get in The Christians.
Still, Hnath isn’t above questioning why people sacrifice so many real-life pleasures for the promise of some eternal reward that has never ever been proven to exist. Does The Stockholm Syndrome – falling in love with your captor – also apply to those who let their lives be ruled by a God who frequenting seems uncaring?
Hnath’s best question comes at play’s end: “Will people believe what we believe a hundred, a thousand or ten thousand years from now? Many religions have died.” Yes, we laugh at the pagans who worshipped the sun – but we must concede that they’re among the very few humans who could say for certain that their God unquestionably exists.
For those who always complain that they can’t hear what goes on in plays (which tend to be less amplified than musicals), The Christians is a Godsend. Virtually every word from every character is said into a microphone, be it hand-held or a pulpit stand-up. Even the most extraordinarily hearing-impaired will catch everything.
Perhaps the microphones are there simply because Lucas Hnath wants us to hear his message loud and clear. Once the audience leaves his “church,” the solid silence they’ve maintained for an hour-and-a-half will quickly give way to plenty of heated debates.