06/11/2012 10:46 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2012

'Storefront Church' Review: God and Mammon in the Bronx

Politicians and preachers both trade in hope, the dream of a better life at some point in the future. The politician promises it will come right after the next election; the preacher says it awaits us in heaven. In Storefront Church, John Patrick Shanley's funny and poignant new play, a politician and a preacher go head-to-head over matters spiritual and worldly, each wrestling with his own crisis of conscience.

The play, directed by Shanley for the Atlantic Theater Company to inaugurate its newly renovated space, opens on a very timely problem. Ethan Goldklang, an aging and ailing Bronx native, is pleading with Reed Van Druyten, an automaton of a loan manager with a dark past, not to foreclose on his wife's house. Ethan has brought Van Druyten a chocolate cake his wife baked, but the banker rudely refuses the gift as a bribery attempt and is adamant the mortgage is in default.

The story moves to the office of Donaldo Calderon, the Bronx Borough president, where Jessie Cortez, Ethan's wife and an old friend of Donaldo's mother, is appealing to the rising politico to intervene to save her house. Donaldo, who has no qualms about accepting baked goods and is munching a piece of cake, insists there is nothing he can do for her. But when Jessie tells him his mother is a co-signer on the loan, Donaldo swings into action.

At this point, Storefront Church could be a simple morality play on the inhuman and unethical banking practices that have affected countless American homeowners and the cozy relationship between banks and politicians. But Shanley has more serious issues in mind than a foreclosed mortgage. There is, for example, the loss of one's soul.

As the tangled circumstances of Storefront Church become clearer, the play gains resonance. Jessie's debt is actually a second mortgage, one of the infamous balloon loans. She gave the money from it to Chester Kimmich, a preacher up from New Orleans who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina, to open a church in the ground level of her house. The problem is that Chester hasn't held a single service there in the 10 months since Jessie bankrolled him.

In a gripping scene in which Donaldo confronts Chester on his failure to pay rent or even open the church, Shanley plumbs the depths of spiritual doubt. Chester has been paralyzed with inaction since arriving in the Bronx by, as he puts it, a "big black hole" that opened in the road before him. Donaldo will have none of it. "The Bronx doesn't need more churches," he says. "It needs money."

The politician accuses the preacher of running a vice scam on Jessie. "How can righteousness be a vice?" Chester asks. "When others have to pay for it," Donaldo snaps. Donaldo, however, has seen the same a black hole in the road before him as well.

There is a late subplot in the play that brings big business into the mix. Tom Raidenberg, the CEO of the bank that holds Jessie's loan, has a multimillion dollar plan to build a mall in the Bronx and he needs Donaldo's support. Donaldo is on the fence. "We need growth," the CEO argues. "Cancer is a growth," Donaldo shoots back, but it is clear the fate of Jessie's house is tied to the project.

An epiphanous final scene brings all the characters together in Chester's church for a showdown that is both comic and ultimately moving. Will Jessie get to keep her house, and by extension Chester his storefront church? If so, at what cost to Donaldo's career? Will the CEO get to build his mall? And will Van Druyten find closure for his tortured past?

Shanley grew up in the Bronx. He attended a Roman Catholic school, was a choir boy, and later served in the Marines. Storefront Church is the final play of a trilogy that touches on each of those aspects of his youth. The first, Doubt, is a searing drama about a Mother Superior who suspects a priest of pedophilia. It won the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award, and the movie version was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Screenplay. Defiance is set at a Marine base in the South and involves race and a sex scandal.

For Storefront Church Shanley assembled a splendid cast without a weak link in it. Giancarlo Esposito and Ron Cephas Jones bring a palpable intensity to the roles of Donaldo and Chester. Bob Dishy and Zach Grenier are humorously droll as Ethan and Van Druyten. Jordan Lage is oily slick as the bank CEO, and Tonya Pinkins is credible as the beleaguered homeowner.