The ensconced veteran reluctant to give up the spotlight. The impatient successor nipping at his heels. This scenario has launched plots from "Paradise Lost" to "The Late Shift."
David Rambo's 1999 play "God's Man in Texas," now at the Blank Theatre under the direction of the writer, sets the age-old power struggle in a church.
But not just any church: The (fictional) Rock Baptist Church in Houston is more like a three-ring circus. The sermons of its charismatic pastor, Dr. Philip Gottschall (Ted Heyck), are televised. U.S. presidents — except Bill Clinton, who "would not be well-received" — regularly worship here. Under Gottschall's reign, the Rock has expanded to include a gymnasium, two swimming pools and a university.
Or so we are told. All we see is the pulpit and a green room where the pastor takes tea between shows (a modest set by Chad Dellinger). Here we meet Dr. Jeremiah Mears (Brian Letscher), who has been invited from his less flashy church in San Antonio to give a series of guest sermons.
A talkative techie, Hugo (Tom Costello), mikes Mears up. He did a lot of drugs before he was saved, Hugo explains. These left him prone to blurting out awkward — if narratively useful — exposition and subtext.
Hugo reveals that Mears is actually auditioning for the pastoral search committee, in charge of finding the 81-year-old Gottschall's replacement. Mears has some steep competition, but his real obstacle is that Gottschall is not ready to be replaced.
The setup sounds explosive, but the play takes a circuitous route to the promised fireworks. The first act consists of Mears' sermons, punctuated by Gottschall and Hugo's critiques of them. Gottschall, while expressing an avuncular bonhomie toward the younger pastor, quibbles with his approach, but Hugo reports that everybody else loves him.
Former President George H.W. Bush is even inspired to give broccoli another try after Mears preaches about it. (Does anybody remember that Bush didn't like broccoli? This plot point feels dehydrated.)
By Act Two, the competition has mysteriously evaporated and Mears has been hired as co-pastor, but Gottschall continues shouldering him out of the limelight. In a witty montage, Mears must bestow blessings on unglamorous gatherings such as a "women's weight-loss ministry," where he prays for one congregant to "find her path as a more slender Christian." He grows impatient for glory as Gottschall continues to put him off.
Rambo seems reluctant to impute unsavory motives to either pastor, and there are no sex or accounting scandals in this church. To trigger the necessary showdown, he chooses to veer sharply into melodrama, bringing in (offstage) a deus ex machina from Hugo's past.
The plot never quite recovers, but the finale, in which Mears experiences a divine vision, hints at the real story the play has been too distracted by church business to tell: the rift between public and private expressions of faith.
As director, Rambo gets compelling performances from his cast, particularly the subtly soulful Letscher; ironically, these point up some of the missed opportunities of his script. Cramming a massive church into one room and reducing its staff to three people inevitably dims its luster; the small scale might have been better used to explore these larger-than-life characters more intimately.