Is ‘The Christians’ Theater J’s most Jewish play? Review

Michael Russotto plays Pastor Paul, whose sermon shakes the foundations of his highly successful church, in playwright Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians.” Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Michael Russotto plays Pastor Paul, whose sermon shakes the foundations of his highly successful church, in playwright Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians.”
Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Regulars at Theater J may do a double take as they file in to the Edlavitch DCJCC to see the company’s latest offering, “The Christians.” A trinity of oversized crosses dominates the stage, which is set up for preaching with an oversized video screen displaying hymns, and a few Bibles on the tables and lecterns.

Standing in the balcony on opening night, 22 members of the Refreshing Spring Church of God in Christ James E. Jordan Jr. Choir from Riverdale injected spirited gospel songs for the mostly staid audience.
Over the course of the run through Dec. 11, 16 choirs from local churches will participate, along with one Jewish community choir, Zemer Chai.

Is it audacious for a Jewish theater to produce a play about a powerful and charismatic pastor who causes a rift within his megachurch? Sure. But Adam Immerwahr, artistic director, contends that “‘The Christians’ may be the most Jewish play in our season.”

Playwright Lucas Hnath grew up in an evangelical Christian church, his mother was a preacher, so he knows the subject on which he treads. The play opens in the midst of a spirit-lifting Sunday service, the choir claps and sings, “God is great and greatly to be praised” and the pastors look agreeably happy.

Then church founder Pastor Paul gives his sermon and it shakes the very foundations of this highly successful church, which in 20 years grew from a storefront operation to a mega-ministry serving thousands. Illustrated with key phrases like a PowerPoint presentation, the sermon reveals “a crack in the foundations of this church.” That crack, the pastor invokes, is that Satan is not a biblical precept and he adds that he — and by association his congregation — no longer believes in the fire-and-brimstone Hell of the Christian Bible.

Associate Pastor Joshua, a rising, beloved presence in the church, disagrees vociferously. A theological and deeply personal debate ensues, including quoted Bible verses and personal experiences. An irreparable rift has been created. Soon the pastor is listening to the pained questions of a congregant and the equally shocked and pained disbelief of his wife. He has no answers because his own belief has “evolved” and he can’t return to the now untenable theology of his church.

So, how Jewish is “The Christians”? It’s not the first Theater J play to include neither Jewish characters nor a Jewish author. But it is the first, I will wager, where theatergoers hear, “In the name and blood of Jesus, let us bow our heads and pray,” for the audience becomes, if you will, the congregation, observing and taking in the preaching and occasionally clapping along with the choir.

Immerwahr’s contention that this is the season’s most Jewish play is disingenuous, and more than a bit of a marketing ploy. Jews — or at least American mainstream Jews — often behave as agnostics in expressing their beliefs. We don’t hear or encourage personal testimonials about God in our services, of course, and finding the holiness and grace of God in synagogue services is often overlooked in reading the ancient texts. Jews don’t proselytize beliefs to others of our own or outside faiths. Therefore, much of the play, which takes place during a church service, or later in one-on-one conversations in the church (save for one scene at home with the Pastor and his wife), feels distant from Judaism and Judeo-centric ideals that it’s hard to find the participatory thread that playwright Hnath is striving for from the audience. He wants the audience to become a central participant in the theological debate.

Theater J and most Jewish artists don’t much wrestle with theological questions. Rather, the Jewish questions that abound in theater, literature and other arts are those that struggle with existential issues: Why be Jewish? Will my grandchildren be Jewish? Am I a good, or good enough, Jew? What of my Jewish history, my Jewish culture? Am I an insider or outsider? Can I be the change for better in the world?

Hnath and director Gregg Henry dig into the core of a belief mainstream Jews hardly think about: Hell as a punishment for bad earthly behavior. The argument, though, is less talmudic and more bravado. It rattles the rafters and cracks the foundation of both Pastor Paul’s church and his marriage. In so doing, “The Christians,” at least on stage at Theater J, perhaps knocks at the doors of 21st-century mainstream Jews, those who don’t wrestle with angels and struggle with biblical pronouncements about whether God and Satan exist. In that knock, the question is raised: Should Jews think more, talk more, act more, on belief?

“The Christians” is a small play: just five actors (Michael Russotto as larger-than-life Pastor Paul, Justin Weaks as rising associate pastor Joshua, Caroline Stefanie Clay as the pastor’s somewhat steadfast wife Elizabeth, Annie Grier as distraught congregant Jenny, and Michael Willis as a church elder) and a single set (by Jonathan Dahm Robertson). It poses big questions, and like most Theater J plays, leaves the answers and discussion to the viewers. That makes it a Theater J play.

Jewish? The answer to that question is left up to you.

“The Christians,” through Dec. 11 at Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529 16th St. NW, Washington. Tickets start at $37. Call 202-777-3210 or visit theaterj.org.

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