John Patrick Shanley's new play focuses on storefront churches -- those optimistic, home-grown, sometimes shady, often ramshackle but sincere houses of worship that spring up in poorer neighborhoods. Someone feels the spirit calling them and they rent a space and set out a few chairs and commence to testifying. Maybe people show up. Maybe they don't. Sure they're businesses, but done right they're in the business of saving souls, not making money.
Shanley is a lucky fellow. Thanks to his talent, when the spirit moves him and he has something to say, a talented cast will walk into his store and pitch in. Shanley won the Oscar for Moonstruck, the Pulitzer and Tony for Doubt and directed Meg Ryan to to her delightful best in the cult favorite movie Joe Versus The Volcano. But he's probably smart enough to value above all the artists who always show up for the long shot that is a new play.
He certainly felt the need to witness. Not to the travails of the Church, as in Doubt, but the travails of people, especially those swept away by the financial meltdown of the last few years. His new work is set in 2009 and begins with an old man (Bob Dishy) trying to convince a loan officer (Zach Grenier) to give his wife an extension on her mortgage. The officer refuses to engage the old man as a human being and sticks to his script -- catch up on your mortgage payments or the bank will foreclose -- and the old man fails spectacularly, collapsing in a heap on the office floor.
The next scene finds the old man's wife Jessie (Tony winner Tonya Pinkins in full comic mode) pleading with Bronx Borough President Donaldo (Giancarlo Esposito of Breaking Bad) to please help her before she's kicked out of her home. Slowly, the story comes into focus. Jessie took out a second loan to pay for renovations on her home, money spent by a tenant named Chester Kimmich. Chester (Ron Cephas Jones) is a preacher and he wants to open a storefront church in her ground floor. But Chester isn't paying his rent and he hasn't begun preaching and Jessie is at the end of her wits. Chester has the Spirit in him, Jessie believes, so she won't confront him. But maybe Donaldo could help with the bank? Donaldo doesn't want to get involved but when he finds out his mother has co-signed the second mortgage, he agrees to go see Chester.
Until now, the play has wavered in and out of focus. Shanley is too talented not to provide some humor and vivid characters. But the tone is all over the map and some of the characters -- especially the twitchy, facially deformed loan officer who was shot in the face by his (now ex-) wife -- feel like "characters" instead of people.
Then Donaldo walks into the storefront church where Chester sits quietly in the dark, struggling. In an electrifying and absorbing scene, these two sterling actors confront each other. Here's what's happening, we think: Chester is having a crisis of faith and Donaldo has been sucked into his life so Chester can be woken out of his slumber.
But the Lord works in mysterious ways and in act two our understanding of what happened in that scene is upended. Donaldo is the one having a crisis of conscience and Chester has been placed in his path to save the politician. Donaldo is doing business with the bank CEO (a not overly oily Jordan Lage) who wants Donaldo to support a $300 million mall in the Bronx. Chester knows it's a soul-sucking enterprise with minimum wage jobs that in a way is exactly what his community doesn't need. But making such a high-profile project work could be his stepping stone to the mayor's office or even the governor's mansion. And of course once he's in power, then Donaldo could really make a difference. So why not compromise now?
(By the way, I don't necessarily agree with the show's economic outlook about a new mall in a depressed neighborhood. But then proposing a waste treatment facility or some such thing would have been too heavy-handed, so there's no pleasing some people, is there?)
Also floundering is that loan officer. He feels literally dead inside, lost and alone, stumbling through the detritus of his life and waiting for the release of death.
Those are weighty ideas but Storefront Church only really finds its footing in that wonderful scene at the end of the act one and during part of the climactic sermonizing that ends the show. In between Pinkins and Dishy and the rest nail their comic lines and try to anchor the broad moments in reality.
But the play feels too schematic, as if Shanley decided he wanted to talk about the real estate bubble and then worked his way backwards to these people, this story. Grenier is a wonderful actor but he can only do so much to humanize the broad brushstrokes that are the loan officer, though God knows he makes the most out of lines like "I really don't understand." Lage is good as the wily capitalist but having him demolish a gingerbread house piece by piece with rapacious glee is hitting the nail on the head too neatly.
The play goes for a cinematic effect during two awkward scenes: in each one, a character (first the loan officer and then Donaldo) are seen outside by a bench, wordlessly dealing with their pain and confusion as music swells in the background (one song is by Antony and the Johnsons, the other was unknown to me). It didn't help that the background showing the city skyline by set designer Takeshi Kata was a little too stylized for my tastes. I was too aware of it as a pretty backdrop. The sets in general were solid, but cinematic-like scenes such as these either work completely or don't at all. These didn't.
While it was good to see Donaldo taking up the mantle of his father and preaching, if only for a little while, where was Chester's big speech at the end? It seems anti-climactic that Chester was more like a counselor leading an AA meeting than a preacher. He was opening his church at the finale, set free by a God who had a plan for him and had finally revealed it. Jones was so good in act one, I was waiting to hear him unleash some Holy Ghost Power at the end. His moment never came.
Shanley is blessed with an ideal cast and directs them ably moment to moment; they elevate this work with their full-hearted performances. With their help, maybe he can refocus and find the right tone and story. When it comes to the predatory loan practices of the meltdown or the faceless greed of Big Business, maybe a little less preaching? Because when Shanley puts all those machinations aside and finds two men in a room, struggling with themselves to understand what God wants from them (or even just what they want from themselves), why that's when you hear the rhythm of that old time religion, the one Shanley believes in: theater.
THE THEATER SEASON 2012-2013 (on a four star scale)
Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day and features top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It's available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.
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