Hamlet, when a troupe of itinerant actors comes to Elsinore, talks of “hearing a play.” His words echo in my head every time I attend a piece by one of this decade’s favorites, Lucas Hnath.
Of all Hnath’s plays, “The Christians,” at Bristol Riverside Theatre through Sunday, May 19, most demands that viewers be primarily an audience (with emphasis on the word’s root, audio).
The first third of the 90-minute piece is an evangelist’s sermon in which a popular pastor, made wealthy as he acquired a following of thousands, celebrates taking his church out of debt and introduces “a radical change” in which he effectively alters the theology he has been preaching since his nascent days in a storefront.
Hnath, “Christians” director Matt Pfeiffer, set designer Paige Hathaway, music director Michael Kiley, and actor Anthony Lawton make this extended sequence fastidiously realistic.
From a dramatic perspective, the scene, despite Lawton’s charm, is almost inert. Information is spouted, and Lawton drops Pastor Paul’s ecclesiastic salvo, a disbelief in both Satan and the existence of Hell, but the passage feels less like a play than a service.
Pastor Paul is the focus, and you have to listen to Lawton to savor the nuances embedded in the repercussions to come from what some consider blasphemy and others betrayal by the preacher.
No matter what is being said or going on in plain sight but under the surface and away from the center of the action, the first part of “The Christians” is a tough slog.
Hnath takes the risk theatergoers will want to attend to Pastor Paul from beginning to end and tune into all that is being said — even though it veers from the expectation one has when entering a theater. The playwright is treading territory that hasn’t been contemporary since the Greeks, and Pfeiffer and company have no choice but to follow him into the breach.
At Bristol, they do so brilliantly.
The trouble is some of that brilliance doesn’t announce itself readily and has to be discovered by taking a scan beyond the dominating Lawton to see what his castmates are doing in the corners.
Susan McKey, as Pastor Paul’s wife, Elizabeth, gives a master class in silent acting as she listens to the aptly named Paul’s message. A symphony of reactions is visible on McKey’s face and suggested by her subtly changing body language. The worry is no light or cue directs one to McKey, and the contribution might be lost. This would not only be a shame but a missed opportunity to leaven “The Christians.”
McKey isn’t alone in providing visual respite from the sermon. Akeem Davis gives his character, Associate Pastor Joshua, a rapt look as he takes in Paul’s speech, and cannot control a squirm or six as he leans forward in attention. Dan Kern, as the chairman of the church’s board, also does well by maintaining a serene countenance while letting you see he is boiling underneath.
These three actors, joined by K. O’Rourke as an inquisitive congregant, create the more potent drama “The Christians” musters in its later sequences, but it is their work as active listeners that lends needed animation to Hnath’s opening. If the expressions and side glances of McKey, Davis, and Kern are missed, “The Christians” may come off as an oddity that belies its quality as both a piece for the theater and as a work that addresses current issues and behaviors that go beyond matters of religion and belief.
Hnath uses the consequences of Pastor Paul’s sudden departure from standard dogma to comment, metaphorically, on the cultural divisions and impasses so rampant in our time.
Themes of honesty, probity, consistency, tolerance, confidentiality, and loyalty crop up as several people in turn challenge Pastor Paul on his reversal and question his motives. Why, for instance, does he choose the day he announces his church’s debt-free status as the day he declares a diametric turnabout in his religious doctrine?
These questions and ideas are raised in long exchanges Paul has with the board chairman, Associate Pastor Joshua, the inquisitive congregant, and Elizabeth. As characters assert their positions, Hnath underscores the schisms and intolerances that plague politics, and often social interaction, today.
The politics of a religious institution is the context of “The Christians.” The inability or unwillingness to cope with divergent views is its crux. While seemingly sticking to one subject and one situation, Hnath exposes a common malaise and how insidiously it operates.
This is done via four intense discussions that cover acres of emotional and philosophical ground while challenging Pastor Paul and his reversal of heart. As with the opening sermon, these exchanges don’t precipitate much action, but they are powerful in how many subjects they raise and the intelligence with which each character expresses his or her stands.
“The Christians” is a play to be heard. Listening to it is exciting and provocative. It opens minds and sets them to exploring a variety of ideas while exposing how little many will budge, or how little many will put up with, when presented with something that veers widely from presumed norms.
Pfeiffer paces all expertly, and his cast is superb. Akeem Davis proves again and again that he can make any character a persuasive advocate. Davis endows his work with honesty, passion, and intelligence that compels the listening “The Christians” requires.
Susan McKey, once she expresses how a wife and partner feels about hearing the unexpected without being primed or consulted, commands the stage as much as she did when she reacted silently to Pastor Paul’s sermon. Dan Kern is excellent at conveying pragmatic duplicity in the guise of diplomacy.
Anthony Lawton is called on to convey many attitudes, many moods, and many responses. He handles his task with expert aplomb, especially as he maintains Pastor Paul’s convictions while under fire, under duress, and under the strain of losing all he has so meticulously built.
Michael Kiley’s choir, made up of community members and led by Miriam Grace, Christopher J. Perugini, Stephanie Rubio, and Dominick Sannelli provides diversion and a great sound. Paige Hathaway’s set can be occupied by any congregation any Sunday. Linda B. Stockton dresses Hnath’s characters perfectly. And Maria Shaplin’s lighting is evocative when it needs to be.
The Christians, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, May 19. $40 to $50. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.