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'The Christians' review: Compact, provocative play about faith

Linda Powell, Andrew Garman, Larry Powell and Philip

Linda Powell, Andrew Garman, Larry Powell and Philip Kerr in Playwrights Horizons and Center Theatre Group co-production of the New York premiere of "The Christians," a new play by Lucas Hnath. Credit: Joan Marcus

When a big, modern, evangelical church with a charismatic preacher has a crisis -- at least in a play -- it is hard not to expect another sex or embezzlement scandal. This is far from the case, fortunately, in "The Christians," Lucas Hnath's compact and thoughtfully provocative drama that comes to Playwrights Horizons after a 2014 premiere at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.

We begin at a service at the rich but tastefully simple church (serene design by Dane Laffrey). After a live onstage choir sings, Pastor Paul, his wife, the associate pastor and a church elder take their royal blue seats.

Paul (a convincingly empathetic Andrew Garman) begins his sermon, first to celebrate paying off the building's debts. But then, without changing his calming tone, he tells the congregation that there is no hell, no devil, and that the Bible tells him so. Everyone -- Christian or not -- is forgiven and ends in heaven.

Thus begins a crack, then a schism, then what Paul is surprised to acknowledge as an insurmountable divide as his associate pastor (Larry Powell) starts a new church, and even Paul's wife begins to step away from a faith that doesn't punish sinners.

The arguments are rolled out with clarity and accumulating outrage in director Les Waters' production, narrated by Paul but acted out by everyone using intentionally alienating hand mikes. The positions are neat, but not too tidy, as a leader preaches forgiveness -- and the people really don't like it.

WHERE Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St.

INFO $75; 212-279-4200; playwrightshorizons.org

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