The Religion Thing

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Editorial Review

Too much cute takes sting out

By Peter Marks
Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012

Renee Calarco is onto something when she suggests in her new play, "The Religion Thing," that America's biggest taboo isn't talking about sex - or even, as plays such as "Clybourne Park" might have it, race. No, it's talking about faith.

The uncomfortable silences that sometimes follow a public confession of devoutness are reproduced amusingly in this world-premiere comedy, which had its official opening Monday night in Theater J's Goldman Theater. Now, if Calarco would only trust her premise and cut some of the clunkier conceits in this overreaching effort, she might see her way clear to a taut, provocative satire. In downshifting too often from sociological insight to ill-advised bursts of magic realism and other cutesyness, "The Religion Thing" squanders much of its comic momentum.

The play, directed by the dramatist's brother, Joe Calarco, launches Theater J's Locally Grown festival, an important new showcase for District playwrights. Over the next two months, the company will present readings of works by four other writers from the region, as well as several performances of "The Prostate Dialogues," a new solo piece by Baltimore-based Jon Spelman.

A company of Theater J's level of visibility diverting this much energy to the city's dramatic voices is a milestone. On the heels of Arena Stage's recruitment of District playwright Karen Zacarias as one of its resident writers, the Locally Grown festival is opening another channel for area dramatists seeking a route to more frequent and prominent productions.

Would one want the first fully staged festival offering to be a hit? Naturally. But a piece that's still finding itself will also do. Let "The Religion Thing" be the impetus for a more sustained contemplation of the D.C. theater community's collective will to nourish locally grown or groomed writing talent, to invest some resources into it in a more systematic way and see what benefits accrue, for artists and audiences.

The consequences of religiously mixed marriages have been a staple of comedy since the "Abie's Irish Rose" in the '20s. As intermarriage has become more common, the guidelines for worship have grown blurrier in many families. As "The Religion Thing" posits, some couples of differing religious backgrounds find the topic so fraught these days that their solution is to expel God from the household altogether.

Calarco concerns herself with two Washington couples who could be charitably described as completely mixed up about faith. Mo (Liz Mamana), a lawyer, and Brian (Chris Stezin), a lobbyist, are so out of religious sync that, because she's Catholic and he's Jewish and neither is willing to give any ground, they've held off having kids, to Mo's despair. (That neither is religiously observant - or the least bit spiritual - makes their obstinacy on this point more confounding and also somehow comprehensible.)

Insofar as "The Religion Thing" is concerned, Mo and Brian articulate a far more mainstream dilemma than do the other couple: Kimberly Gilbert's Patti, a lawyer and lifelong friend of Mo's, and Patti's new love interest, yet another lawyer, Will Gartshore's Jeff. To spill many more beans would be unfair, but it is crucial to note that Jeff is a born-again Christian and that Patti, who apparently led quite the wild dating life, is masquerading as born-again to hold onto the seemingly straight-shooting Jeff.

While other charades in their relationship are pivotal to the unfolding complications of "The Religion Thing," Patti's motives are, through no fault of the talented Gilbert, the most difficult to unravel. (Then again, Jeff turns out to be quite a piece of work, too.) The recounting of their spiritual conjoining, revealed to a stunned Brian and Mo at a dinner party early in Act 1, sets up some of the play's funniest revelations. (Mamana's skeptical Mo gets the evening's choicest ripostes when she tries to shock Patti back to reality.)

The play, to its credit, tries awfully hard not to paint Jeff as a fanatic. It helps that Gartshore has been cast here, because he makes Jeff's reasoning for some of his suspect decisions plausible: You never doubt that he believes what he's saying. That's why it's all the more disappointing when the playwright undermines her story with a series of coarse, sketch-comedy vignettes that purport to be the cathartic dreams and/or hallucinations of the four main characters. Portraying the carnal or moral catalyst in each of these unfunny sequences is Joseph Thornhill, who looks as ill at ease through it all as I felt.

It becomes difficult to see past these scenes - as well as a prologue in a comedy club that feels equally vestigial - to an easy view of how this is all meant to fit together. As a result, the actors trudge a bit haltingly through all of the exposition. Even James Kronzer's carousel set reinforces the cumulative sense on this evening that we, like the characters of "The Religion Thing," are doomed to go around in circles.

Backstage: 'The Religion Thing'

By Jessica Goldstein
Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012

"The Religion Thing" is the inaugural play in Theater J's "Locally Grown" festival, featuring work by D.C. area playwrights. The show, which opens Wednesday, focuses on two couples: one an interfaith husband and wife and the other their longtime friend, a recent born-again Christian, and her new honey, whom she met at a church mixer. The evangelicals are devout in their devotion to both God and each other.

Chris Stezin, plays "a non-observant Jewish guy married to a lapsed Catholic," half of a couple who, as they age, "begin to miss the rituals of their childhoods and, I think, the substance that observing those rituals lends. . . . They try to navigate this minefield."

Renee Calarco, the playwright, described herself as "Jewish and somewhat observant. . . . My mother is Jewish. My father was Catholic and he converted before marrying my mother. So half of my extended family is Catholic.

"Oddly enough it's been a defining thing in my life. . . . How do you relate as a Jew in a Christian world?"

Calarco is an award-winning playwright (her "Short Order Stories" earned the 2007 Charles MacArthur Award for outstanding new play) who initially wrote "The Religion Thing" as a 10-minute play in 2004.

Religion, she said, is one of those issues that even the irreligious confront. "There are times when I think we all struggle with faith and the role of faith in our lives."

"This play is about the things we put aside when we're in relationships," said Joseph Thornhill, who plays multiple roles in the show. "You want to have a life with somebody, so . . . you put off making decisions on things that don't seem relevant at the time. In this case, it's religion. But it could be about anything."

Theater J suggests the show is suitable for viewers 17 or older because of sexual content and language. "I have a few favorite lines," Stezin said, "most of which are unprintable."