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A Heavenly Play

Lucas Hnath’s The Christians takes place in a modern-day mega-church, which falls into turmoil when its leader, Pastor Paul (in the foreground, played by Andrew Garman), announces that he now believes there is no hell, and that everyone gets into heaven.

Thoughtful ‘Christians’ Doesn’t Provide Easy Answers, But It Leaves You Wanting More

photo by Craig Schwartz

work for resolution. It was clear on opening night that his words clicked with some audience members, who shouted against Paul’s preaching and for Joshua’s. The performances are remarkable and restrained, none more than Garman, whose highprofile, charismatic pastor flies in the face of the televangelists who seem most obsessed with money. Paul is far from perfect, but Garman portrays him as a man who truly believes what he’s saying. That’s the key. All of the characters know in their hearts that they are right, and they sincerely want others to believe it for their own good. Director Waters never pushes the action. With a couple of key exceptions, the show is subtle and thoughtful. Waters manages to use the long-corded microphones in a dance-like manner, as actors swing the black ropes of wires back and forth while walking and talk-

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ing. The mics give the words greater impact, and it’s particularly moving when Paul whispers a key monologue. It’s not surprising to learn in the program playwright’s notes that Hnath grew up around churches. He has captured the mega-church culture in a way few writers ever have, or probably ever will. Best of all, he knows where and when to stop, even if the abruptness might be unsettling. Most of the best art leaves questions to ponder and the viewer wanting more. That’s the case here. In this case, the “more” should be a commission by Center Theatre Group for a new play by Hnath, who will likely emerge as one of the best American playwrights in the next decade. The Christians runs through Jan. 10, 2016, at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or centertheatregroup.org.

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theater. Next, a 27-member choir, situated upstage, sings a rousing hymn with the houselights up, before Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman) delivers a sermon using a microphone with a more than 20-foot long cord (all dialogue is delivered via hand-held mic). The sermon offers gentle humor that works on two levels: as the audience’s newfound role of parishioners, and as theatergoers who can see outside the play’s framework. Toward the end of Paul’s sermon, the defining moment arrives: On this day celebrating the church’s 10th year in its new home, and its first day out of debt, Paul says he now believes there is no hell. He adds that all people are afforded entrance to heaven, whether or not they accept Jesus as their savior. Associate Pastor Joshua (Larry Powell) disagrees, which opens a chasm that may end the church. It’s a familial divide as well, because Elizabeth (Linda Powell), Paul’s wife and a women’s study group leader, sides with Joshua. The congregants are exemplified by choir member Jenny (Emily Donahoe), who questions why Paul chose to wait until the church was debt-free to make his revelation. She also ponders his philosophy with questions, such as if everyone gets to go to heaven, does that include Hitler, or a man who might kill her child? Hnath doesn’t allow the characters to be two-dimensional heroes or villains. He doesn’t

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By Jeff Favre eligion permeates all aspects of culture, whether you embrace some form of it, reject it or simply try to ignore it. Lucas Hnath’s The Christians may connect most deeply with churchgoers, or those who have walked away from organized religion, but its depth, originality and execution should fill most anyone with a range of emotions. Anger. Comfort. Fear. Disgust. Sadness. In 90 too-brief minutes, it’s easy to feel all of these and more because Hnath tackles life’s greatest mysteries in the only realistic way possible — with earnest questioning. With near flawless direction by Les Waters, The Christians, running through Jan. 10 at the Mark Taper Forum in Downtown Los Angeles, is the most compelling offering of the theater’s 48th season. Commissioned by the 2014 Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, The Christians is a rare example of theater examining Christianity in a way that refrains from satire and judgment. Its realism immerses the audience in the pews of a megachurch somewhere in today’s America. The experience begins with Dane Laffrey’s spot-on design of a church, including plush blue carpet, video screens to project Bible scripture and wood paneling that matches the Taper walls, which seamlessly blends into the

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