This is the first time I’ve mentioned this in a review, but it’s most relevant in the case of Lucas Hnath’s “The Christians,” the striking new satirical drama at Road Less Traveled Productions.
It has to do with the performance you decide to attend. Every performance of live theater is unique, of course, and privy to a host of factors. I’m not speaking to this production’s quality, which is expectedly strong. Director Scott Behrend has assembled and prepared a pitch-perfect staging that capitalizes on his theater’s many strengths.
Fitting the “Productions” descriptor in the company’s title, this pushes the traditional theatrical boundaries to incorporate other forms of presentation and performance. These lines are blurred for the duration of show’s intermissionless 90 minutes. It’s not always clear when we’re being preached to, or if the distinction matters.
We’re congregants at an evangelical megachurch in “21st century America” — God’s house, America’s pulpit, television’s theater. Our pastor (Dave Hayes) preaches a radical new message to us. His junior associate (Aaron Moss) is dumbfounded by his spiritual brother’s unexpected announcement: that the pastor — and, by virtue of his instruction, the congregation — no longer believes in hell.
When the pastor’s wife, a stoic, bejeweled queen (Lisa Vitrano) and his rational, dutiful board president (Steve Jakiel) show concern for their leader’s groundbreaking (in a fire and brimstone sort of way, perhaps) epiphany, they are met with plenty of resistance. Thus, the show’s central argument commences.
Is the Christian bible a piece of literature, fictional if still influential, or an instructional document for tactical living? How does a believer navigate their physical life if their spiritual soul is guaranteed a spot in heaven? How does the absence of eternal damnation influence our decisions with one another? Is everyone given a free pass to do what they want to each other?
Is Hitler going to heaven, a loyal but increasingly confused congregant (Victoria Pérez) asks her leader. His answer is hard to accept, but it fits his new philosophy that while introduced haphazardly, is nevertheless an appealing concept to contemplate.
There’s a lot to mine in Hnath’s approachable, simplistic script. By setting the entire show in a church service we see the Church’s influence through the lens of its production values. Everyone speaks to each other through a handheld microphone, even in the few key scenes held in the periphery. Whether with an audience of one or thousands, these people communicate to be amplified. Nothing is intimate or personal.
Dyan Burlingame’s realistic set perfectly captures the corporate warmth of this megachurch’s wall-to-wall carpeting. Its colorfully lit architecture seems to want to fill in the hollowness of this recently paid-off construction; sometimes our sanctuaries are mere buildings.
Everyone on stage is in tip-top shape, performing in roles they might not be mistaken for but for whom they are obvious interpreters. Hayes is the ideal father figure, charming, firm and affable. Moss is convincing as a future superstar. Jakiel is wonderfully even-tempered in every way we need him to be. Vitrano is illuminating and hilarious as the fiercely independent preacher’s wife; keep an eye on her nonverbal reactions.
Pérez is breathtaking as a congregant whose faith rattles before our eyes; her appearance is brief but crucial, and I won’t soon forget it. I heard heartbreaking gasps throughout the audience during the performance I attended.
Which brings us to the performance you attend. I couldn’t help but to think that in this immersive space (in what used to be the Buffalo Christian Center, no less) the show’s church environment may play very differently on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday evening than it would on a Sunday afternoon, the opening weekend performance I attended.
One might feel more satirical and cynical, while another feels more literal. The line between entertainment and preaching might not be clear, but it casts a line in the sand that’s relevant to the nature our modern religious practice. In the spirit of the show’s central inquiry, it feels fitting to explore both sides of the coin. How does one define that which does not exist?
“The Christians” by Lucas Hnath
Road Less Traveled Productions, 500 Pearl St.
Rating: 4 stars (out of four).
When: Runs through May 20; Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $35 general admission, $20 students. Available at roadlesstraveledproductions.org and at box office (629-3069).