Renee Calarco’s ‘Religion Thing’: Cutesyness drags down comedy about faith

January 10, 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.

The Religion Thing

by Renee Calarco. Directed by Joe Calarco. Lighting, Cory Ryan Frank; costumes, Frank Labovitz; sound, Veronika Vorel; dramaturg, Frank DiSalvo. About 2½ hours. Through Jan. 29 at Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit www.boxofficetickets.com or call 800-494-8497.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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