The Atlantic Theatre has had a recent facelift. And like a lot of us small unassuming people when having 8.5 million dollars at one’s disposal, they have rendered themselves unrecognizable. There is a lobby now, and a box office, and that odd musty smell is gone, and that’s nice. But the house now looks like every other house. Gone are the oddly pitched bleacher seats, the modest stage and what made the space so unique; the public restroom in the wings. The stage is now massive, there’s a fly (or perhaps two) and the seats are brand new and set somewhat below the apron. It looks shiny and new, but it’s lacking in character.
Aptly, the new space is being christened with Storefront Church. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley’s, Storefront Church is the final installment in his “church and state” trilogy. (The first two were Doubt and Defiance.) Storefront Church would not be recognizable as part of this trilogy, except we are told that it is. Doubt, about the Catholic Church, and Defiance about the military (both directed by Doug Hughes) were tightly told tales of imposing institutions. It’s difficult to put the same dramatic significance upon banking.
The story is about faith and the mortgage business. (That’s “AND” not “IN”) and is as creaky as it sounds. Issuing a second mortgage to a poor risk doesn’t seem to have the same resonance as that of child molestation or the moralistic labyrinth of the military. If we are to extrapolate the insidious racism at work in the refinance industry, why is the recipient of the second mortgage married to a white Jewish man? That may be just too “riddle wrapped in an enigma” for me. The first act is at times a demonstration of the new technical toys at the theatre’s disposable. The stage crew seemed to be on stage as much as the cast. (Doubt and Defiance were simply staged powerful pieces.) There are so many scene changes in the first act that whatever power was there, was part of what got swept up by the crew (I’m not kidding, they come out and sweep the stage while we watch.) There are (massive) set changes twice, to stage soulful staring on a bench. A song plays for each of these stareathons. “Snow” falls for one of them, which may provide a nice wink for The Hunchback of Notre Dame riff, but is distracting as it keeps accidentally falling throughout the play. (That’s not a technical problem, fake snow always does that.) The Hunchback reference is interesting but is a bit belabored. When the play opens on a bug-eyed droopy-lipped Reed Van Druyten (the stunning Zach Grenier) and Ethan Goldklang (the powerful Bob Dishy) is holding the book and talking about it; we get it. There is one reference in Act II that should stay because it’s funny, but the others? Well that’s why you shouldn’t necessarily direct your own new work.
Another director might not bring out the beauty that Mr Shanley does in his actors, but he might have also had a little heart-to-heart with the playwright. The theme of the play is far too vague to burden it with superfluous scenes and lumbering set changes. This becomes even clearer during Act II. There are only two scenes and they are perfectly written. They are clear, powerful, engaging and terribly moving.
The cast includes Tonya Pinkins who (much to the audience’s delight) sings a spiritual. That voice! Her role is not large, but she is absolutely delightful. Giancarlo Esposito (Donaldo) and Ron Cephas Jones (Chester) are incredibly convincing as the Bronx Borough President and Pastor. Their (lengthy) scene in the first act is clunky and far too esoteric, but they do a splendid job with it. The wonderfully smarmy Jordan Lage (Tom) rounds out the cast. You know Tom, you’ve worked with Tom, you want to hurt Tom.
Storefront Church is in previews and will be open June 11 – June 24. If Act I can more resemble Act II this will be a stunning play. As it is now, it should be seen for the performances. It is rare to see a collection of seasoned actors like this in such an intimate space.