Theater Review: ‘The Christians’ Has Little More Than Atmosphere

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Erika LaVonn and Paul Deboy in “The Christians.”

Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians,” directed by Timothy Bond, is a juvenile undramatic portrait of a mega church and its Pastor. Playing at the Wilma Theatre through May 29th, the play tells the story of Pastor Paul, the founder of a successful super church who delivers a sermon (perhaps not incidentally on the day the church, after 10 years, is debt-free) wherein he changes his theological belief on the existence of hell.

After telling a story about a young boy, not a Christian, who heroically saves his own sister by running into a burning building, Pastor Paul concludes from this parable, that this boy will live on in heaven. Hell, Pastor Paul teaches, from the original Greek, is a dumping ground, not an actual place of eternal damnation.

This sermon, delivered by actor Paul Deboy, to his chorus, his congregants (the audience), his wife, (Erika LaVonn) and assistant Pastor Joshua (Delance Minefee), catalyzes his downfall as church membership declines and Pastor Joshua starts his own successful church. The rest of the play vaguely explores this theological controversy in a decidedly dilettantish manner, throwing around biblical verses in a cursory way that does not reflect deeply on the issues Hnath raises.

During the play’s opening sequence, the audience is entertained by a chorus of 19 singers (all local Philadelphians under the direction of Michael Keck) who sing evangelical songs (indeed I saw one audience member sing along clearly comforted by the play so far) with lyrics such as “build your hopes on things eternal/hold his hand, God’s unchanging hand.” The set, artfully designed by Matt Saunders, reproduces the super church environment.

But Hnath’s investigation of the theological concepts of hell, heaven, belief and faith fall short, lacking much substance. There is little, if any genuine drama in the play – Pastor Paul knows exactly what he wants and seems fearless and even arrogant in his manner. His tone and voice are reminiscent of Garrison Keillor from the Lake Wobegon live radio show – a preternaturally calm tone with a sing-songy cadence that does not suggest any struggle with his new belief on sin and the after-life. Pastor Paul seems almost too sure of his theological beliefs and feels talk-show-hosty and condescending to his parishioners.

Hnath too easily settles for a high concept to the detriment of much substance in this undramatic portrayal of a minister and his church. When his wife leaves him at the end of the play, because she does indeed believe in hell and finds his beliefs anathema, there is no pathos, the characters remain hollow, not even rising to the level of ideological talking heads.

The play is more often than not manipulative in its use of music and religion and relies too heavily on them to achieve some higher emotional effect. Nothing seems to be at stake for Pastor Paul who seems at peace in his newfound theological convictions, willing to pay the price (his church, his family) for his beliefs. When he repeats the line “I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable,” it sounds more like an advertising slogan or something easily blurbed by a reviewer than a deeply felt piece of writing.

“The Christians” is playing now through May 29 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street. Tickets are between $10 and $25. Information: 215-546-7824.

Angels In America: Perestroika at the Wilma

The Wilma Theater opened its 2012-13 season with the enthralling second half of playwright Tony Kushner’s Angels in America that deals with the Aids crisis and the Cold War.  Directed by Blanka Zizka, the play is a tour-de-force of acting and staging.  

We resume the epoch story of Prior Walter, (Aubrey Deeker) a gay man who lives in NYC and has been diagnosed with AIDS.  His lover Louis, (Benjamin Pelteson) a left-wing ideologue, leaves him and begins an unlikely  fling with a closeted Mormon lawyer, who works for Roy Cohen, (Stephen Novelli) the rightwing fixer and shady lawyer.  

More after the jump.

Amidst the chaos of the AIDS epidemic, Kushner creates a cosmic-scale portrait of America through legendary characters: ancient rabbis, Mormon housewives, neoconservatives, blind revolutionaries, closeted gay men and imaginary travel agents.  Together, their lives intersect and get blow apart with profound symbolism and brilliant comedy.  Director Zizka remarks: “Kushner’s characters get themselves into deeply messy situations in Perestroika.  Everybody seems to be worse off than in Millennium Approaches.  However, in critical moments, each character finds some amount of generosity.  Yet in order to change, we have to find generosity and be open to accept others.”

You will encounter angels descending from on high, Prior wrestling with the Angel and begging her to let him live, despite his suffering from AIDS.  There  are golden dancing alephs projected on the stage to excellent effect.  “We live past hope” he says.  It is inadequate – “bless me anyway.”  

In a 1994 interview with The New York Times, Kushner explains that “The aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the seed word, the God letter.  This is why in the play, God is referred to by the Angel as ‘the Aleph Glyph.”  The real name of God is, of course, unutterable.”

Belize (James Ijames), a male nurse, is Prior’s friend and gets some of the best lines in the play.   Taking care of the racist Roy Cohen,  he tells Louis, who loves the idea of America in the abstract.  America  is “terminal, angry and mean” and lying in a hospital bed.  In one of the most poignant scenes in the play, as Belize takes Cohen’s experimental AIDS drugs, Louis reluctantly recites the kaddish over Cohen.  The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Mary Elizabeth Scallon), who Cohen sentenced to death for her alleged communism, joins him in the kaddish.  

This promises to be an exciting season for the Wilma.  Their next production, Satchmo at the Waldorf, begins November 16th.  

Wilma Theatre, 265 South Broad Street, (215) 546-7824.  Discounted tickets available for students, groups or anyone in their 20s.

Prepare Yourself: Angels in America at the Wilma Theatre

Prepare yourself, announces the Angel, in Tony Kushner’s 1991 Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, playing at the Wilma Theatre through July 1st.  Indeed, prepare yourself to witness a rare theatrical event, a contemporary classic play by an American-Jewish playwright who weaves together Mormons, Jews, the ghost of Emma Rosenberg, Roy Cohen, Ronald Reagan and African-American drag queens.  

This inspired production is directed by Wilma’s founding Artistic Director, Blanka Zizka, Zizka writes:

“The AIDS crisis of the 1980s provoked Tony Kushner to write a play of a scope and complexity that, I believe, we had not seen before, nor have we seen since, in this country.”  “The playwright gives the play the subtitle, ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,’ and clearly points out his own sexual identity and establish the vantage point for his imagination.  Through one of his characters (the Oldest Living Bolshevik in Perestroika) Kushner asks old but profoundly existential questions that reverberate throughout the whole play. . . . where do we come from? What are  we doing? . . . the play engages these questions on personal, philosophical, political and cosmic levels.”

More after the jump.
With a sparse and effective set designed by Matt Saunders, Angels delivers some outstanding performances, particularly Kate Czajkowski (Harper) and Stephen Novelli (Roy Cohen).  

Angels takes places in 1985, during the Reagan presidency when AIDS victims were often demonized and homophobia was rampant.  Even after twenty years, its themes of millennial disaster and foreboding, both personal and political — for the two are inextricable for Kushner — may be more relevant today than they were then.  In a program note, Kushner writes: “I feel going back now, that the early ’90s, the late ‘802, for all the horrors of the AIDS epidemic, were comparatively innocent and carefree times compared to where we are now. . . .so the play and the times, both feel darker to me now than they did back then.”  

Indeed with a Republican Mormon running for President, a Democratic president who professes in his memoir the New Deal is over and cites Reagan as his political model the play’s themes of identity, power, and freedom seem quite relevant today.   Kushner must have been touched by one of the Angel’s feathers for the writing possesses an aura rarely found in contemporary theatre.  Kushner has written an epoch play about what it means to be an American – whether a Communist, a neo-conservative leftist, a closeted gay Mormon, or a scion of an old WASP family — Angels asks the tough questions.  

The play opens with an old Rabbi giving a eulogy for an old woman — Louis’ grandmother — he’s never met.   But he knows this woman, he says, since she was from the old world and crossed over, bringing with her, her lineage and her memory, to be planted in the memories and bodies of her family.  In Angels, Kushner explores many “thresholds of revelation” where appearance and reality become confused.  Lines are crossed – religious, political, and sexual and laws broken.   The woman, says the rabbi, is the “last of the Mohicans.”  

What does it mean to cross over, to traverse unfamiliar ground, as all the characters in Kushner’s play do?  To be an ancient Hebrew means to be separated, to be on the other side, to be migratory, rootless, a stranger.  Indeed all the characters in Angels — whether Jew or Mormon, gay or straight, Communist or Republican, black or white — are displaced, as “the old orders are spiraling apart and lies are surfacing.”  

Kushner questions what it means to be a citizen of a participatory democracy that seems to exclude so many of its own citizens.  Can democracy succeed in America, Louis asks, at one point.  Kushner handles such weighty philosophical and moral question ss a Talmudic scholar cum playwright, pulling them this way and that with fully embodied characters that are not, thankfully, the vehicle for political ideas but flawed, fleshy, messy, ambivalent and contradictory human beings struggling with what it means to be alive on earth.

Prepare yourself to be uncomfortable, to laugh and to pray for Fall to arrive (but not yet!) so we can witness the second Act of this powerful American drama.

In the fall, Wilma will open its 2012-13 season with Angels in American, Part Two: Perestroika, which continues the epoch saga of these engaging characters.  

On Monday, June 28th at 7:30pm, there will be a free Community Conversation on “The Impact of HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia, sponsored by FIGHT.  Speakers representing Philadelphia’s FIGHT, the Mazzoni Center, the William Way LGBT Center and The City of Philadelphia Mayor’s Office for LGBT Affairs will discuss current topics and issues regarding HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia with an audience Q & A to follow.  The Wilma Theatre will also present a comprehensive exhibit which will examine the impact of HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia through cultural material.  

Angels in America at the Wilma Theatre, (215) 546-7824.  wilmatheatre.org  265 W. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA.  Tickets range from $39 – $66 and are available at the Wilma Box Office or calling the theatre.  Discounted tickets are available for students, groups or anyone in their 20s.