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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

By Dany Margolies

Sometimes it's really hard to really know which voice is God and which one is your own wishful self.— Wife
Linda Powell and Andrew Garman (Photo taken during Off-Broadway production by Joan Marcus)
Pastor Paul delivers quite a sermon on this particular Sunday. His church, which he built from the ground up as his congregation expanded, now includes a sanctuary with thousands of seats, a lobby with a coffee shop, and classrooms and an ample parking lot. Today is the 20th anniversary of its founding, and today it has become debt-free.

After a gospel song and a prayer, so begins The Christians, by Lucas Hnath, directed by Les Waters in this co-production by Center Theatre Group and Playwrights Horizons of the Actors Theatre of Louisville production, at Mark Taper Forum through January 10.

Every statement, every thought, save one potent remark late in the play, is spoken into a microphone. This is meant to emulate modern-day religious services in modern-day caves. Indeed, the appealing yet disquieting scenic design, by Dane Laffrey, has been lifted from its proscenium presentation at Off-Broadway's 216-seat Playwrights Horizons, where it ran this fall (Curtainup's review of that production ), and settled into the thrust configuration of the Taper, turning all of the this theater's 750-seat semicircular house into the church's sanctuary. (The Taper production has also expanded the onstage choir from 20 to more than 50 singers.)

So convincing is this setting that, at least on opening night at the Taper, a considerable number of theatergoers in the front rows clasped their hands and bowed their heads during the pastor's prayer. But the microphones, intimate as they make the conversations, are also slightly distancing, a theme of this play.

After Paul presents the financial report, he recounts meeting his wife by sending her a note that said, "I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable." There was no such distance when God communicated directly with Pastor Paul, reminding him Jesus has already saved mankind and pointing out that Hell is here on Earth.

On this Sunday, Pastor Paul conveys this to all in attendance, adding,“We are no longer a congregation that says,‘My way is the only way.'”

On the dais with him, his wife, Elizabeth (a thrillingly understated but deeply feeling Linda Powell), sits with perfect posture, a faintly beatific smile on her face, though something clearly roils within her. Also on the dais, Jay, the church elder (Philip Kerr, duly concerned as the financial shepherd of this spiritual flock), quietly looks as if in a nightmare.

But longtime associate pastor Joshua (Larry Powell, in an underplayed, intelligent performance) seethes when his most deeply held beliefs are challenged. He may also be seeing this as his chance to break away and develop his own ministry. So when he is asked to take the microphone and deliver the prayer for the sick, Joshua seizes the moment to debate Biblical text.

None of this seems to prompt a quick exit by any except Joshua. Jay and Paul then chat in Paul's office, with a change of scene created only by Paul's narration to the audience — how's that for the power of words?

And then, on a subsequent Sunday, choir member and congregant Jenny steps up to deliver her testimonial (Emily Donahoe in a startlingly powerful portrayal of a timid speaker, one of the meek about to inherit our attention if not our agreement).

And then Jenny takes a different track. Why now, after the congregation has helped pay off the new building, does Paul speak his mind?

Pointedly, only a tiny splinter of the congregation has left over theological differences. The seismic shakeup is stirred by her questioning Paul's timing, causing many on the stage and many in the audience to ponder his motivations and ethics.

Among those is his wife. Elizabeth, thus far dutifully silent, launches into him. Why had he never shared with her his thoughts, his plans? If we haven't yet, we'll realize the thudding gracelessness with which Paul has made his announcement, whatever our thoughts on its message. Among these fine actors, Andrew Garman gives a stunningly measured yet natural portrayal of Paul. Garman masters Hnath's dialogue with the cadence of a longtime public speaker. His Paul speaks with fearlessness born from the confidence of direct communication with God. And then his Paul speaks with a godless fear of losing his wife.

Yes, this is a play about religion, but it's more about the power of words and the potential damage indirect and distanced communications can cause. And that pertains to all of us, of any religion or none.

The Christians, by Lucas Hnath
Direction: Les Waters
Cast: Scott Anthony, Emily Donahoe, Andrew Garman, Philip Kerr, Larry Powell, Linda Powell

Scenic design: Dane Laffrey
Costume design: Connie Furr Soloman
Lighting design: Ben Stanton
Sound design: Jake Rodriguez
Music direction: Scott Anthony
Plays through January 10, 2016, at Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 628-2772,
Running time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
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