Now here’s something you don’t see every day at a theater devoted to Jewish themes: a stage dominated by three large, illuminated crosses. What’s more, playgoers entering the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater at the D.C. Jewish Community Center on 16th Street NW are serenaded by a gospel choir as an actor portraying the pastor of an evangelical megachurch prepares to deliver a sermon that sets in motion the congregation-dividing events of an 80-minute play.
That Theater J’s recently installed artistic director, Adam Immerwahr, has programmed the regional premiere of Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians” is one of the more intriguingly counterintuitive ideas of the new theater season. What perhaps makes it an even nervier decision is that the play is rather dry and too slow to achieve ignition.
It’s certainly not an uninteresting evening, especially given the polished treatment here by director Gregg Henry and a cast that includes Michael Russotto, Caroline Stefanie Clay, Michael Willis and Justin Weaks. Hnath, a hyper-realist previously represented in Washington by Studio Theatre’s “Red Speedo,” about competitive swimmers and their use of performance-enhancing drugs, is in the business of composing topical pieces that are also afflicted with a certain dramatic flatness. He’s a playwright who, you sometimes feel, might benefit from an extra daily gulp or two of caffeine.
“The Christians” is about faith in both the most cerebral and literal senses, and so you can understand why Immerwahr would view it as pertinent to a company that explores Judaism in all its social, political, religious and philosophical dimensions. Russotto’s Pastor Paul has decided, on the very occasion that his wildly popular church has retired the mountainous debt on its telegenic, cathedral-size digs, to announce a seismic shift in his belief system. Prompted by a story told to him about a non-Christian man who dies saving a child in a war-torn country (presumably in the Middle East), Pastor Paul issues an edict that stuns his wife (Clay), his board chairman (Willis), his associate pastor (Weaks) and his thousands of congregation members: No more will the church consider heaven reserved for Christians only. And neither will it continue to endorse the concept of hell.
The play, then, asks us to consider what it really means to call oneself a Christian, a challenge thrown back in the face of Pastor Paul. Extinguishing some of the fire and neutralizing much of the brimstone cause a schism that is exacerbated after a young parishioner (an impassioned Annie Grier) steps up to the microphones on Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s realistic-looking pulpit set to challenge Pastor Paul: Why has he waited until the moment the donors have made sure all the bills were paid to put in place such a radical theological shift? Has she been duped, she wonders, into tithing all of her hard-earned money?
Without being reflexively dismissive of organized religion — which often seems modern theater’s default attitude — “The Christians” attempts a sophisticated analysis of spiritual belief: whether faith has to be rigid or can be dynamic; how much latitude a flock gives its shepherd; when absolute orthodoxy does more harm in the world than good. The lack of condescension here is admirable. To Hnath’s credit, too, there’s room made for multiple points of view.
Russotto, who several seasons back in Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s fine “A Bright New Boise” played a man of bleaker evangelical zealotry, here infuses Pastor Paul with the kind of paternal magnetism that might keep a legion of congregants coming back; you get a good sense of the political skills that have sustained the pastor up to now, how he’s survived by learning to share power genially with the local business executives on the board. Clay, Willis and Weaks give commendable accounts of other key participants in the ministry, who are in various ways threatened or upset by the abrupt changes Pastor Paul seeks to institute.
Built, though, around one of Paul’s sermons, complete with a video screen on which are projected serene photos of clouds and the various buzzwords of his devotional messaging, “The Christians” relies a bit too much on the sedate theatrics of the worship service to feel completely engaging. While it provides food for thought, it could use stronger seasoning.
The Christians, by Lucas Hnath. Directed by Gregg Henry. Set and projections, Jonathan Dahm Robertson; costumes, Danielle Preston; lighting, Kyle Grant; sound, Patrick Calhoun; music consultation, Markus Williams. About 80 minutes. Tickets, $37-$71. Through Dec. 11 at D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 202-777-3210 or visit theaterj.org.