Theatergoers double as members of a congregation in “The Christians,” a play about faith and religion in a mega-church that treats its potentially fraught subject with respect.
In Lucas Hnath’s thoughtful and artfully acted 90-minute drama, a pastor (Andrew Garman) has reached a juncture at which his belief about a key doctrine has changed: he no longer thinks that unrepentant sinners and non-Christians are destined for hell.
A co-production of Playwrights Horizons and Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group, “The Christians” has its New York premiere as the first production of the former’s new season. The play is directed by Les Waters, who also guided its world premiere at the Humana Festival.
Pastor Paul’s sermon, delivered directly to the audience, makes up the first 20 minutes or so of “The Christians.” On stage, he is flanked by wife Elizabeth, a junior pastor and a church elder. There’s also a beautiful rotating 20-person choir drawing singers from all five New York boroughs.
The pastor has arrived at his come-to-Jesus moment after attending a conference in Orlando, just before the action in “The Christians” begins. There, he heard a missionary tell a story about a boy who burned to death after saving his sister from a fire.
The boy wasn’t a Christian, so in the missionary’s version of events, he isn’t “saved,” despite his innocence and noble sacrifice. After this, Paul finds that he can no longer abide by the idea that being a letter-of-the-law Christian is the only way to guarantee salvation -- he believes Christians just need to focus on doing good.
Paul’s position ends up being a problem for many in the church, who have to decide not only how they feel about the doctrinal point, but what it means for their personal relationships with their friend and spiritual guide.
Garman makes for a charismatic pastor, a passionate speaker who radiates accessibility. He delivers the sermon in question just as the rapidly expanding church has paid off its debts -- a point that figures in the plot when a congregant becomes suspicious of the pastor’s timing.
Larry Powell does laudable work as the associate pastor who is torn between what he believes is right and remaining loyal to the man who’d been his mentor.
The meatiest parts of “The Christians” transpire in Paul’s scenes with two women. Jenny (Emily Donahoe, in a nicely understated performance) is a single mom who challenges Paul in a way only a mother could: “What you're saying is that if someone were to murder my son, and the murderer dies, then both my son and the murderer would be in Heaven together?” (Donahoe is pictured below, with Garman.)
So, too, is there an effective turn by Linda Powell -- a daughter of former Secretary of State Colin Powell -- who traverses the span from dutiful preacher’s wife to independent thinker.
Can Paul salvage his job? Can he and Elizabeth stay married? Can they even be friends, or would that leave her, to borrow from Corinthians, “yoked together” unequally with an unbeliever? Hnath doesn’t offer lazy answers.
Paul’s foundation in religion was taught. It’s only now that he’s coming to a position by having to thrash through it, intellectually, with high stakes. What I found most interesting about “The Christians” is the way it compels Paul -- and so, us -- to think about not only what he believes, but also why he believes it.
“The Christians,” through Oct. 11 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. Tickets: $75. Call 212-279-4200.