The service at the evangelical megachurch that has taken over the Mark Taper Forum begins with a rousing hymn performed by a large choir ready to raise the roof in praise of the Lord.
A few secular types could be forgiven for squirming in their seats at Sunday’s opening-night performance of “The Christians” by rising playwright Lucas Hnath, author of the fascinatingly titled “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney.” But theatergoers uncomfortable with the role of parishioner didn’t have to wait long for the drama to start.
A doctrinal earthquake hits the moment Paul, the founding pastor who has been seated in a line with other church dignitaries, rises to deliver a sermon overturning certain sacred tenets. For instance, he now believes that hell, a staple of fire-and-brimstone preaching, is all just a big hoax.
Played by Andrew Garman with a compelling mixture of unctuousness and integrity, Paul wields his microphone cord like a man accustomed to spellbinding giant crowds on a large stage. He shuffles as he sermonizes, his voice the voice of a television preacher. But there’s a troubled sincerity to his demeanor, a streak of anguish that prevents him from coming across like a holier-than-thou blowhard.
Paul can’t understand how a teenager capable of such heroic goodness could be denied a place in heaven. Back at his hotel room while sitting on the toilet, he had a colloquy with God, who said to him, “There is no hell. And there is no reason to tell people they’re going to hell. Because they are in hell. They are already there.”
The beloved pastor, who has lovingly stewarded his church’s impressive growth from its storefront beginnings, brings this updated Good News to his flock. But unfortunately for him, it falls on disbelieving ears. His followers are reluctant to give up their Satan and their hell in fear that morality will collapse if punishment and fear are removed from the equation.
Conversational tussles ensue between the pastor and some of his closest associates, including his outraged assistant pastor Joshua (Larry Powell), who calls for an immediate referendum, Jay (Philip Kerr), a church elder who cares only about maintaining the status quo, and Paul’s wife, Elizabeth (Linda Powell), a church pillar who’s furious that he didn’t discuss the content of his controversial sermon with her beforehand.
This production, directed by Les Waters with his characteristic incisive austerity, began at the 2014 Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville before making its off-Broadway debut at Playwrights Horizons this year. The set by Dane Laffrey re-creates the ambience of a large church that has just paid off its debt. Projections of white doves and majestic skies (Philip Allgeier served as media designer) add just the right artificial celestial air.
The effect of this is to turn the play as a whole into a spoken parable. Hnath, who is respectful of all sides, keeps the focus on the collision of ideas. “The Christians” brought to mind the fundamental conflict animating so many of Henrik Ibsen’s great prose dramas, the battle between radicals and their resisters, those open to new knowledge and those petrified of what these dangerous ideas might lead to.
“The Christians” isn’t as sophisticatedly plotted as, say, “An Enemy of the People” or “Ghosts.” The debate, while always intelligent, doesn’t develop into anything revelatory. The simple, straightforward quality of the drama actually seems prosaic at moments.
What redeems the play is the quality of the characterizations. The perspectives at loggerheads with Paul’s revolutionary vision are given distinctive personalities. His opponents, who have an abiding affection for him, are always recognizably human.
When Joshua spars with Paul over the meaning of biblical verses, he is as ticked off as he is injured by his mentor’s reasoning. How can hell be rendered null and void when the term recurs throughout the Bible? Faulty translation, counters Paul, who says the word actually refers to a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. Larry Powell draws out the many hues of Joshua’s pained ambivalence.
Elizabeth is offended by her husband’s claims, but she can’t stop loving him. “I wish I didn’t think that you’re so smart and kind and good,” she says while on the verge of leaving him. Linda Powell’s potent performance makes her character the most menacing in the play.
The most dynamic contest occurs between Paul and Jenny (Emily Donahoe), a divorced congregant raising her son on a meager income. She doesn’t want to leave the church, but her friends who have already left have filled her with doubts that she now wants Paul to address.
Why, for instance, did he choose to announce his views only after the church was paid for? And if there’s no hell, then what happens to someone as evil as Hitler?
Paul has answers to these concerns, but they aren’t perhaps what a young mother on food stamps who relies on the church for structure and stability needs to hear. (Donahoe’s sensitive performance reveals her character’s fundamental kindness as well as her limitations.)
“The Christians” examines with laudable complexity the differences between spirituality and religion, the former involving an inner truth, the latter entailing communal imperatives. Hnath is alert to the irony that the golden rule may be hardest to live up to in an institution that divides the world into the saved and the damned.
But he dramatizes this conundrum with great compassion and intellectual openness. This is that rare play about religion that both believers and nonbelievers can embrace.
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Jan. 10.
Tickets: $25 to $85 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, with no intermission