by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Les Waters
Playwrights Horizons

Reviewed by David Spencer

An interesting and relevant entry is The Christians by Lucas Hnath. This one, presented like a combination of evangelical church service, revival concert and confessional is aboutówell, itís about a lot of things, but mostly about the nature of faith; not only religious faith, but in whom you have your personal faith. In this case, the who causing the controversy is Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman). He reports to his congregation that he was recently moved, at a religious conference, by the story of a young Indian boy, not a Christian, who ran into a fire, saved his younger sister, but himself perished of his burn wounds. And by the storyteller, another pastor, regretting that they didnít get to save the boy. Meaning, of course, not save his life, but save his eternal soul. For the simple fact of his not being Christian, the young boy who had selflessly sacrificed himself, was surely going to hellóso said the speaker at the conference. And, Pastor Paul continues, he wept and struggled with that story, that night; until God spoke to him. And assured him that there was no hell; that hell was the trials and tribulations of earth, and that that young boy was standing next to Him in Heaven right now.

                  The congregation finds the notion in turns comforting and disturbing. And almost instantly, factions form. The associate pastor, Joshua (Larry Powell), a devout African American, has his own spiritual POV that belies this. Jenny, a church congregant (Emily Donahoe) wants to be on board, but poses very challenging questions at the heart of the premise, which elicit equally challenging answers. Jay, a church elder (Philip Kerr), bends with the prevailing wind until the wind makes it impossible to bend further; as to the Pastorís wife Elizabeth (Linda Powell), she has to decide if her primary faith is in Jesus or in her husband.

                  If youíre an atheist (as I am), thereís the added irony that the dramatized issue is essentially one philosophy of magical thinking pitted against another. But of course thatís a metaphor for any situation in which passions polarize people to the point where thereís no getting at the truth, nor any truth to get at, because passions obfuscate clarity. And the real issue is whether, or how, people can find the sweet spot of tolerant co-existence between two extreme poles of disagreement.

                  The play is a kind of Shavian dialectic within a highly original theatrical formatóexcellently played by the cast under the crisp direction of Les Waters. Caveats? One: I think Mr. Hnath goes a bridge too far with Pastor Paulís most outrageous claim, within his new conviction. Rather than spoil the moment, Iíll only say itís a response to a question. And I think it goes too far because he answers yes, and the yes both pulls you out of the play (anyway it did both me and my companion), and rips empathy (not sympathy; empathy) away from the pastor for a few crucial minutes in a manner that seems like a playwrightís calculation rather than a sincere response from the character as weíve come to perceive him. The answer is a pivotal one to the playís progress, and one could argue that the pastor defaults to it because, having committed himself to a conviction, he cannot then publicly soften its absolutism; and as well that the playwright actually intends for us to question our initial impression of the guy; but Iíd argue that if the answer were more ambiguousói.e. ďI donít know the answer to that one. I didnít get that far with God. It never occurred to me to ask, and given the bigger message he wants me to impart, I donít think itís something he wants us to know; thatís where we have to have faith in his ultimate wisdom. All I know for sure is, that boy is not in hell.Ēóthe controversy that follows could have an even greater capacity for legitimate dramatic ambiguity.

                  But thatís a small blip within a nicely rendered exploration.

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