Monday, 28 September 2015

THE CHRISTIANS by Lucas Hnath at Playwrights Horizons

     I doubt if religion is a key force in the lives of the sort of folk who regularly attend Playwrights Horizons. The somewhat uncomfortable titters that erupted from some audience members during the performance suggested that for many in the audience a play about evangelical Christians must be a comedy. Nobody could really believe that stuff, right? Kim Davis, the country clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses because of her evangelical faith must be a hypocrite or worse, right? To understand and appreciate THE CHRISTIANS, Lucas Hnath's brilliant, thought-provoking play, you must accept that such faith is literally a life and death matter for many people.
     THE CHRISTIANS begins at a celebratory service in a megachurch (location unspecified). Under Reverend Paul (Andrew Garman), its charismatic preacher, the church began in a storefront, then grew exponentially until now it is in its own massive building complete with escalators, gift shop and coffee shop and a congregation in the thousands. The play begins with a sermon in which Reverend Paul first announces that the church has just paid off its debt. He then goes on to tell his flock that God has spoken to him and he no longer believes in hell. God loves all his creation, believers and non-believers alike. The play then offers a series of confrontations as the church Reverend Paul slowly created is quickly destroyed. First, a horrified Joshua (Larry Powell), the Associate Pastor, announces that he cannot support Paul's new revelation. Joshua goes off and begins his own church. A member of the Board of Trustees is concerned about the economic fallout from Paul's sermon and the loss of Joshua. In the most powerful scene in the play, a poor single mother who feels she has been saved spiritually and materially by the church asks a series of increasingly difficult questions of Paul. If there's no hell, why be good? Would Hitler be in heaven? Finally, did Paul wait until the church's debt was paid off before voicing his new belief in universal salvation? During this exchange, Paul becomes less and less articulate. Paul's wife so disagrees with his new faith that she must either leave him or contradict his teachings within the walls of the church. Finally Joshua explains to Paul why he so fervently believes in hell. Paul is left quietly, almost inaudibly, whispering his doubts, "How do I know God is speaking to me?" Isn't God also speaking to the folks who so ardently disagree with him?
     THE CHRISTIANS raises a number of questions about religion. Can God really be speaking to so many people in so many different, contradictory ways? Why is Hell so important to so many people? Paul points out that it really isn't in the Bible, but that doesn't matter. Believers must believe in the horrible punishment that awaits them if they don't accept Christ. What is the responsibility of a pastor? Can a leader really force beliefs on a congregations. Paul makes the foolish mistake of believing one sermon can change everyone's minds and hearts. Essentially the losing battle that is waged is one that was argued in the American church in the 19th century between mainstream protestants and universalists. As a proud member of the Unitarian Universalist faith, I could say to myself that Paul is moving in my direction. Historically it's not an intellectual or spiritual path many Christians have wanted to take.
     The cast of THE CHRISTIANS couldn't be better. Andrew Garmon manages to capture many of the traits that many ministers I have experienced share. He loves to respond to contradiction with "I hear you," but he never understands that the other side is equally passionate. We're talking about faith, after all. There's a tyrannical side under the nice guy exterior. Faith, after all, is absolute for the believer. Yet even people of faith have dark moments of doubt. By the end, Paul is experiencing such a moment. Larry Powell expresses Joshua's shock, deep hurt and essential kindness even though his faith is quite scary. Emily Donahoe is moving in her initial tentativeness in confronting Paul, but in the power of her confusion and sense of betrayal.
     The play is staged as if it were all part of a worship service, complete with choir and organ. Les Waters has created a rich, deeply sincere and moving production. Dane Laffrey's set is convincing.
I don't know how folks who aren't interested in religion will take this production. I am always wrestling with questions of faith, so the play was manna to me. Whatever one thinks or believes, Lucas Hnath is real deal, a masterful playwright who creates rich characters and beautiful, theatrically exciting language. I'm going to be reading his other works in the coming week.
     I want to add that I'm delighted that Playwrights Horizons have moved from using Playbill to creating its own program with much better program notes. More non-profits should follow in their footsteps.

THE CHRISTIANS. Playwrights Horizons. September 28, 2015.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

ISOLDE by Richard Maxwell

     At the beginning of Richard Maxwell's ISOLDE, the title character, a celebrated actress, is trying to learn her lines for a dramatic version of Tristan and Isolde, the story most celebrated in Wagner's music drama. In that work of high romanticism, the erotic and the philosophical merge. Wagner's work is also greatly about memory. Maxwell's Isolde (Troy Vazquez), has memory problems. She has trouble memorizing lines and remembering what she has said. Isolde is married to Patrick (Jim Fletcher), a very practical building contractor who promises her freedom to make decisions, but is actually very controlling. When he tells her that she can control the building of a vacation house she wants, she hires Massimo (Gary Wilmes), a celebrated architect who talks a good game but never comes up with a design, perhaps because he has become romantically and sexually involved with Isolde. Like a character in a Pinter play, Isolde often stands around being enigmatic while Patrick plays dominance games with his wife's lover. He is aided at times by a mysterious, vaguely menacing man called Uncle Jerry (Brian Mendes).
     I've never seen a Richard Maxwell play before, but this one is filled with echoes of Pinter. There are long speeches separated by pauses and lots of subtext. High stakes rivalry is masked by a sinister courtesy. The characters are wealthy, educated and supposedly refined, but all that seems to be a veneer to cover primal needs. Pinter would never insist on cultural references the way Maxwell does here, but I'm not sure that the references to Tristan und Isolde operate in more than obvious ways. Yes, unlike Tristan, this is not high romantic tragedy. Practicality wins out over romance or art. There's a lot of talk about artistic creation here, but nothing is created.
     Maxwell has directed his own work on a spare setting with plywood walls, basic props, minimal furniture and plain bright light. The production only becomes conventionally theatrical when he presents a brief non-verbal version of Tristan und Isolde with the prelude to Wagner's work playing dimly in the background. The acting style is a strange combination of affectless delivery and naturalism. Vazquez's Isolde speaks in a flat, muted way as if she is living her life as a cold reading. Fletcher's Patrick and Wilmes's Massimo veer closer to naturalism--not quite naturalistic, but with more feeling than Vazquez expresses. The contrast underscored the old "woman as mystery" stereotype.
      I can't say that I found anything particularly original or engrossing in ISOLDE. The style of the play and production lead to expectations of complexity that isn't really there.
ISOLDE. Theatre for a New Audience Polonsky Shakespeare Center. September 26, 2015.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

LOVE AND MONEY by A. R. Gurney at the Signature

     Non-writers may not realize that ending a play is just about the hardest part of writing. Perhaps this is why people are so seldom satisfied with the ending of a favorite long-running television series. The ending never seems convincing. My favorite television finale is the last episode of THE SOPRANOS--it allowed for a number of possible scenarios. I mention this because I was with A.R. Gurney's enjoyable, very thin, short play LOVE AND MONEY until the last five minutes, which gave us a patently false ending.
     In LOVE AND MONEY wealthy society matron Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman), is selling off her possessions and assigning her large fortune before going into a retirement community. Cornelia, who seems to have almost limitless wealth, has decided that money is the root of all evil. She's going to atone by giving everything to charity. Her anxiety-prone attorney (Joe Paulik), is worried that her grandchildren (her children are dead) will contest the will. Everything seems fine until word comes of an illegitimate grandchild, offspring of a prodigal daughter, who would like a share of the money. Walker Williams, said grandchild, suddenly appears on the scene--there's a fairytale quality to this play. Walker (Gabriel Brown), is African-American. Is he truly Cornelia's grandson or a charming con man? The script mentions John Guare's SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION in which a young Black man ingratiates himself into a wealthy New York household by claiming to be Sidney Poitier's son. Gurney's play is nowhere near as dark or complex as Guare's. It's the sort of play that used to be labeled "boulevard comedy" and was standard repertoire for summer theatres like the Westport Country Playhouse, which co-produced LOVE AND MONEY. Like a good desert, it was enjoyable without being at all nourishing. The play skimmed over the issues of race and class that should be crucial. I won't be too much of a spoiler, but at the end the white aristocrat who supposedly has become socially conscious blithely decides the fate of the Black man, which he happily accepts even though it is not what he wanted. The play seems to say that despite any moral enlightenment, once a WASP always a WASP and that we in the audience should be charmed by that assertion. The old white aristocrat and the young Black man dance to Cole Porter and all is well. What century is this?
     Still, as I said, enjoyable. Maureen Anderman is a joy, Joe Paulik and Pamela Dunlap are excellent as the worried lawyer and the ever-faithful, wry servant (another character out of mid-20th century stage and film comedy). Gabriel Brown didn't suggest any depths to the young Black visitor, but Gurney hadn't written any for him to play. Mark Lamos directed ably on Michael Yeargan's lovely set.
     With a starry cast, perhaps Claudette Colbert as Cornelia, LOVE AND MONEY could have been Broadway fare in the 1950s. Does it belong at the Signature now and at 70 minutes it's a bit of a cheat. Maybe next the Signature will revive THE RELUCTANT DEBUTANTE?
LOVE AND MONEY. Pershing Square Signature Center. September 23, 2015.