Over the years, I’ve been to shows I didn’t understand, whose points I missed. Sometimes I’m just not the optimum audience for the material (The Rug of Identity, a radical feminist performance by Jill W. Fleming which I reviewed in 1989); sometimes, I’m just not in a very receptive frame of mind (or I’m plain obtuse) and I miss it all (The Cezanne Syndrome, a French Canadian play by Normand Canac-Marquis I reviewed earlier the same year); and sometimes the production just doesn’t work for me (Energumen by Mac Wellman, on which I reported for an interested producer in 1985). In the last circumstance, the responsibility could be in the staging (that is, it’s the director’s and cast’s doing) or the play (the writer’s fault). Now, I’ll freely admit that I’m not necessarily the sharpest knife in the rack, but after sitting through the two hours of John Patrick Shanley’s latest, Storefront Church, at the Atlantic Theater Company’s newly-renovated Linda Gross Theater in Chelsea on Friday evening, 8 June, I’m pretty sure I just experienced one of those last situations again. Oh, I know what the plot is all right, and I can describe the characters and all—but I have little idea what Shanley’s trying to say or what we’re supposed to take away from the performance. And since Shanley also directed the play, and had a fine cast, I have to assume he got onto the stage what he wanted, so I can’t blame bad directing very much.
According to Shanley, the idea for the play arose from walking around his old Bronx neighborhood. “I kept seeing these storefront churches,” he recounted in a Playbill interview.
I thought it's just such an interesting idea to take a candy store or a laundromat and say, “Okay, this is going to be a church, and I'm going to name it whatever the heck I think a church should be named, and I'm going to preach whatever I think this church should espouse and hope to get some parishioners and make a go of it.” What an interesting thing! It's sorta the basic building block of religion. Rather than people who attend major faiths, this is the place—the primal soup—of organized religion. I thought the original impulse—the need for spirituality and community that this represents—was exactly the kind of thing that I wanted to talk about.
Originally titled Sleeping Demon, Storefront Church—an earlier working title which is much more straightforward—is the writer’s final play in his “Church and State Trilogy” following Doubt (2004; Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize, Oscar nom) and Defiance (2006). (Those two plays débuted at the Manhattan Theatre Club, the dramatist’s artistic home since the 1980s through Romantic Poetry, a 2008 musical for which Shanley wrote the book and lyrics and which he directed. Shanley moved to ATC for Storefront Church for reasons no one’s really discussing; he said he just wanted to try someplace different.) Set in December 2009 in the Bronx, it concerns Bronx Borough President Donaldo Calderon (Giancarlo Esposito) who steps in to help a homeowner, Jessie Cortez (Tonya Pinkins), and her husband, Ethan Goldklang (Bob Dishy), solve a mortgage problem that threatens to take their house. It happens that the bank that holds the mortgage is also the prime financer of a $300 million development project Calderon supports for his borough. Furthermore, Calderon’s mother, a close friend of Jessie’s, is the co-signer of her loan. After Ethan, an accountant, meets with the by-the-book loan officer, Reed Van Druyten (Zach Grenier), and suffers a heart attack in his office (flipping the loan officer the bird as he sinks to the floor!), Jessie goes to see Calderon at his mother’s suggestion. He’s reluctant to intercede because it might look like a conflict of interest and it might interfere with his dealings with the bank, but in a meeting with the bank’s CEO, Tom Raidenberg (Jordan Lage), Calderon mentions Jessie and Ethan’s situation, and Raidenberg immediately goes into action to see if he can manipulate the paperwork somehow to get the couple out from under the impending foreclosure. (Please observe: the director of the bank foreclosing on people’s homes while manipulating elected officials in pursuit of a $300 million deal, is named Raidenberg—as in ‘corporate raider’—and while he’s chatting, he’s demolishing a gingerbread house that was a gift for his son. Heavy symbolism much, ya think?) It’s clear that what he proposes to Van Druyten is quasi-legal at best. Though the loan officer, who’s already lost one career and has some prodigious personal baggage as well, demurs briefly, he ultimately shrugs his shoulders and does what he’s asked.
Jessie had taken out a $30,000 second mortgage, which she clearly couldn’t afford, Van Druyten points out to both Ethan and his boss. She has given the money to her tenant in the former laundromat beneath the residence to convert it into a Pentecostal church. A preacher, Chester Kimmich (Ron Cephas Jones) has no means to pay back the loan or to pay the rent and, we soon learn, is suffering a crisis of faith—he’s a Katrina refugee from New Orleans—which has left him unable to pray or to open his church. No prayer, no service; no service, no church; no church, no collection; no collection, no income. Calderon, paying the reverend a visit to see if he can shake loose 10 months of back rent so Jessie can pay down her arrears, points this out, but the BP’s presence, even as skeptical as he is, inspires Kimmich to offer a service the next Sunday and he invites both Calderon and Van Druyten to attend. At Calderon’s meeting with Raidenberg, the BP also mentions the coming service, and the glad-handing CEO insists on coming, too. If he’s going to do business in the neighborhood, he explains, he should meet some of the residents, shouldn’t he? So everyone gathers at the storefront church: Reverend Kimmich, with his spiritual blockage; Jessie, who plays the electric piano and has enough faith for everyone; Ethan, who declares himself a “secular Jew”; Van Druyten, who’s never been to a church of any kind, much less a Pentecostal storefront temple; Calderon, who admits he’s let politics crowd out religion in his life, and Raidenberg, the money-lender in the temple, as Ethan calls him. (With all those Christians of one sort or another on stage, Shanley puts this New Testament observation into the mouth of the sole Jew? Oy Gevalt!) The confluence of all these folks—Raidenberg has also brought along the papers forgiving Jessie’s loan—precipitates the crisis that’s Shanley’s central drama.
That dramatic crisis, which is pretty contrived in my opinion, arrives at the very end of the play. Everything else in the two-hour performance is set-up. (There are at least half a dozen coincidences and contrivances that have to be laid out, after all. The interrelationship among Jessie-Ethan, Calderon, his mother, and Raidenberg-Van Druyten is only one.) The theater promotes the play as an examination of “the relationship between spiritual experience and social action” and Shanley says the script “involves a mortgage crisis and—more directly, really—a spiritual crisis of which the borough president and the minister are two sides.” In a Back Stage interview, the playwright asserts, “Conscience is the most dangerous thing you possess. If you wake it up it may destroy you.” Well, that may be what he intended to depict, but the play offers a rather wan exploration of that theme, people faced with choosing between two unsavory actions in order to get through, and it takes the whole play to get down to it, leaving little time for anything but the most inorganic conclusion for Shanley to make his point. In an already talky play, the final scene, built around a preacher and a politician, is more so. I will say, however, that the final scene might stand alone as an interesting one-act if it could be extricated from the exposition and web of absurd coincidences and unlikely relationships that comes before. It’s the only scene with any potential for drama, but it isn’t enough to save the performance from being enervating in the end.
Diana and I saw the play three days before its press opening (Monday, 10 June), giving Shanley and the company 23 days of previews before we attended. (The play started performances on 16 May and will close on 24 June.) During the preview period, Shanley made many alterations, prompting the title change and including over 20 revisions to the last scene, arguably the most complex—with all the characters on stage, it’s the only scene with more than three characters—and momentous in the script. Yet, what seems to have happened is that the playwright never fixed the central dramaturgical problem: introducing his point early enough to keep from dumping the entire conflict into that final scene. He says he reworked the characters based on suggestions from the actors, but it isn’t the characters that are the issue—it’s the guts of the drama. Maybe if he hadn’t woven in so many little quirks and oddities to the plot and the characters—there’s a whole, intricate back story concerning Van Druyten, the loan officer, that has little to do with the actual point of the play except that it provides Grenier some emotional baggage to help explain some of his behavior—he’d have been able to get to the meat of the play early enough to get into it and then he wouldn’t have had so much trouble with that last scene.
The second (not necessarily in impact, just in sequence) problem I have with Storefront Church is that when Shanley does get around to concluding his play, after not coming clean about what he’s exploring, he cops out as far as I’m concerned. Raidenberg has manipulated the paperwork of the mortgage so that it’s now a small-business loan, which the bank writes off as a bad debt. There’s no payment from Jessie and she won’t lose her house. But Calderon points out that no loan is ever really forgiven, and Van Druyten backs this up. Money’s been paid out, so somewhere along the line it has to be paid back—just not by Jessie, Ethan, or Calderon’s mother. Some zhlub down the line will get the bill to subsidize Raidenberg’s gift to Jessie in Calderon’s behalf—but we don’t know that guy, so we won’t worry about it. (Little of this reasoning is laid out in the scene—I’m interpolating.) There’s an undercurrent from Calderon that maybe Jessie shouldn’t sign the papers forgiving the debt—he wobbles and sermonizes (because Kimmich can’t preach, but Calderon can—another convenient Shanley contrivance), but in the end, he shrugs and tells Jessie to sign the documents. So the play ends on a morally ambiguous note, not a fault in itself, but here it’s a cop-out and a convenience. This is the moral dilemma about which Shanley suggests he’s writing, but it comes so late and so abruptly and so without much heft that it has no dramatic impact. It ends the play—or, rather, stops the action—without really concluding it. I’m no playwright, but I wonder what might have happened if Calderon tells Jessie not to sign the papers. It’s wrong to pass on her debt to someone else just because it’s opportune for her. What if the BP explains this and advises her not to go along with Raidenberg’s iffy scheme? Diana said you can’t end a play that way, which strikes me as overly prescriptive. (I maintain you can always find a way to do something unconventional—you just have to be smart enough to figure out how to make it work. If I were a playwright, maybe I’d have an idea here, but I’m not, so I don’t. Still, I ask the necessary question.)
The performances are far better than the script deserves, in my opinion. Not that this cast of A-list pros would have shirked their professional duties under any circumstances, of course. By the same token, Shanley’s direction isn't especially striking, so he seems to have gotten good stage work from those pros just by letting them loose on the roles. (It’s an odd sort of paradox that while providing so much backstory and so many seemingly irrelevant details can be annoying for us viewers, it can give actors scads of great material to work with to animate their characters. In a Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, David Mamet, or Lanford Wilson play, say, the actors winnow out the snippets of background and history the writer drops in and then perhaps expand on that privately for their prep; Shanley puts it all in the script.) All the actors in Storefront Church give us terrific, quirky, and believable (if eccentric) characters. The very top of the chart is occupied by Zach Grenier, who appears weekly on TV as the opportunistic, self-interested, and ruthless domestic-affairs attorney David Lee on The Good Wife. His Reed Van Druyten, the most interesting role in the play both dramatically and theatrically (Charles Isherwood calls it “the play’s most touching turn” in the New York Times), is so emotionally damaged that he no longer can summon up the slightest sympathy or sense of humor. His face is half frozen from a gun-shot wound (part of his backstory—and I’ll never figure out how Grenier pulls this off physically without taking botox injections before each show) and he cites Quasimodo’s plea from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which Van Druyten has read because Ethan Goldklang has left the book behind after his heart attack): “Why was I not made of stone.” Grenier could well have been, for all the expression he allows Van Druyten to reveal—until, that is, his marvelous melt-down in the last scene. It’s a tour de force and Grenier nails it gorgeously. I’ve never seen Grenier on stage as far as I can remember, but he’s a frequent performer on TV and in films and I’ve never seen him work like this. At least in those electronic media, he’s woefully underused.
Another actor whose work here is a happy surprise to me is Giancarlo Esposito, the conflicted and torn Bronx Borough President. (When was the last time any of you heard of a play—or any other piece of writing for that matter—with a New York City borough president as a lead character? How many people outside the city—and not a few in the city—even know what a borough president is?) He, too, has been on stage here and on the big and small screen a lot, and he’s always been an actor for whom I haven’t really cared much. It’s hard for me to put my finger on why, but his performances have always rubbed me wrong, like he’s outside the character watching how well he’s doing. But his Donaldo Calderon is more than just sympathetic—although he isn’t always so righteous, he tries to be—he’s honest, especially with himself. As Calderon struggles with the dilemmas he faces—that mall the bank wants to finance will bring many jobs to the borough, but they’re minimum-wage jobs; the mayor supports the development and helping the mayor would beneifit Calderon politically, but the mayor’s a businessman and looks principally at the bottom line; the building the development will replace is derelict and empty, doing no one any good, but it’s architecturally attractive and residents like it and want it preserved for community use—I could see Esposito weighing the consequences, both to his constituents and to himself. I could hear the disappointment in his voice when he knows he has to make a decision that isn’t as pure as he’d wish. At the storefront service, when he assumes the preacher’s mantle, the transition from practical politician to moral voice is nearly impossible as Shanley wrote it—it looks like a shift no actor could pull off cleanly. But Esposito makes it work—or seem to, at least—because he does it with absolute sincerity and commitment. That’s something no director can get from an actor on demand: it has to come from the actor’s soul and a hell of a lot of skill and well-honed technique.
The rest of the company executes their parts with verve and intelligence. Tonya Pinkins, who could be the Latina cousin of TV commentator Donna Brazile, makes Jessie at once soft-voiced and steel-spined. She may not always see the reality of a situation, but she damn-well knows what she wants. Ron Cephas Jones keeps Reverend Kimmich from being the cliché he could easily become by a truly honest and even vulnerable core, even as Shanley’s lines are predictable and platitudinous. For all the character’s foreseeable opportunism and manipulativeness, CEO Raidenberg receives a patina of humanity—just enough to make him warm-blooded rather than a cartoon—at the hand of Jordan Lage, and Bob Dishy, whom I haven’t even heard from much less seen for an age, injects considerable warmth and humor into the proceedings with his bemused approach to Ethan, the outsider in many ways (a Jew among Christians, a humanist among pragmatists and materialists, a white man among people of color, a bit of an imp among serious-minded folk) whose only interest is his wife’s welfare and happiness. All these characters have the potential to fall into cliché or stereotype, but the cast all find truth and humanity in what Shanley wrote for them and skirt that trap.
On the technical end, the sets from Takeshi Kata are thoroughly appropriate for the milieus he’s depicting, with the benefit of shifting easily, quietly, and quickly for the over-half dozen locales called for. (ATC’s reconstruction included installment of state-of-the-art tech equipment.) Lit nicely by Matthew Richards, the several spaces all do what they need to do, and the little storefront church, with the sunlight from the street shining through the single window painted with the temple’s name (and then barred against break-in with an accordion window guard) is downright evocative. Alejo Vietti’s costumes and Charles LaPointe’s wigs (for Pinkins, I presume) are entirely appropriate, and the dialect work (also for Pinkins) by Shane Ann Younts keeps things convincingly real. Shanley has written two wordless scenes on park benches which seemed largely unnecessary, but special mention must be included for the sound design of Bart Fasbender, who overlays those scenes with sentimentally atmospheric songs—I didn’t know the music, but I’ve learned they’re “Another World” by Antony Hegarty and the Johnsons, and Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms”—that allowed them to communicate without dialogue. (Nice work here from the actors, too. The scenes may be dramatically extraneous, but they are well done.)
This world première is the first production in ATC’s main home (they have another theater, Atlantic Stage 2, on West 16th Street) after a two-year renovation which involved the complete gutting of the space and even excavating some cellar space, now the theater’s lounge, bar, and restroom area, that was inaccessible previously. (Marilyn Stasio of Variety found Shanley’s play about church and state a “smart choice with which to reopen ATC’s “restored theater-in-a-church.”) The new theater is attractive enough, and as far as I could tell, its stage acoustics, as well as the sight lines, are fine. I did notice, though, when I arrived and was waiting for the performance to start, reading the program and just looking around at the new house, that the auditorium is very noisy, the sound of everyone’s conversation echoing through the room. (There was also a mildly annoying crackle from the sound system which was loudest when no one was talking on stage and then subsided when there was dialogue.)
In the press, Isherwood was a lot kinder to the play in the Times than I’ve been, calling it “unwieldy but affecting.” Isherwood did acknowledge that Storefront Church “sometimes bogs down in windy debates,” specifically criticizing the last scene as “an egregious example” which “surely could have been finessed into better shape” if director Shanley had been more distanced from writer Shanley’s “overripe oratory.” (I’ve observed this several times regarding playwrights who direct their own scripts. They’re too close to the words.) Yet Isherwood observes that “the more ponderous aspects of ‘Storefront Church’ are leavened by some of Mr. Shanley’s sharpest comic writing in years” and asserts that the dramatist’s commitment to his topic “remains distinctive and invigorating.” The reviewer’s one statement about the script with which I completely agree is that Storefront Church “is so stuffed with character, incident and ideas that not all of them feel thoroughly digested, even by the writer.”
Among the most positive reviews is the uncredited notice from the Associated Press, which calls the première of the “edgy” and “intense drama” a “quirky yet searing production” whose “outcome is not necessarily surprising, but it’s very satisfying.” Like all the other published reviews, the AP writer praises the cast unreservedly. Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post, describing Storefront Church as “a melancholy fable, or maybe a twisted fairy tale,” asserts that the dramatist is more interested in being Hans Christian Andersen than Michael Moore. Vincentelli concludes that though the play’s “a little clunky, a little obvious,” it’s “also earnest and generous. And that alone is praise-worthy.” But based on his Village Voice review, Michael Feingold seems to have seen a different play than I did. Characterizing the playwright’s dramaturgy as “simultaneously light and deep,” Feingold states:
John Patrick Shanley has the gift, always rare among playwrights, of writing scenes that convey both shape and spontaneity. You never feel with him that his characters are being shoved this way or that, for the sake of a previously worked-out agenda. Things happen in a Shanley play because they happen, not because the author nagged or nudged the characters into making them do so.
That’s precisely the opposite of my impression of Storefront Church. To be fair, Feingold does admonish that occasionally Shanley’s “characters are prone to let their talk wander from the point, and to settle their affairs all too conveniently when they remember to come back to it,” which is what I saw all through this play. But Feingold finds it an asset, and I didn’t. Furthermore, though he acknowledges that there’s a “plenitude of plot” which unfolds “in a loopy, half-coincidental way,” the Voice reviewer finds the “the characters' multi-accented cross talk” to be “far more interesting,” even comparing it to some of Shaw’s writing. I couldn’t agree less: the talk, especially the preaching (which mostly comes from Calderon rather than Kimmich) is, for me, pat and unconvincing, convenient and, from my perspective, insincere. (The characters may believe what they say, but only because Shanley wrote them to.) When Feingold lists the “for the best” outcomes at the end of the play (and his review), he seems to be seeing only one side of each result. For instance, Jessie won’t lose her house, Feingold notes, but he doesn’t remember that someone else down the line will be paying for the forgiven loan in order for the bank to cover the loss. Van Druyten, according to Feingold, “rediscovers his self-respect”—but at what cost (if, in fact, he even does)? He’s ripped out his own guts in front a roomful of virtual strangers, he’s exposed all his raw nerve endings. Of all the attendees of the storefront service, he’s the one who raises his hand when the preacher asks if anyone else feels dead. Is that really redemption? Looking beneath the surface of the benefits that accrue at the end of Storefront Church, it’s clear to me that everything isn’t entirely “for the best.” Now, that may in part have been Shanley’s point: that we all compromise, by will or by coercion or by circumstance, but the modern world requires it. But the playwright doesn’t actually make this point—he just lets it happen and then stops the play. So, I’m not sure where Feingold gets his “happy” ending.
In the Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz writes that Shanley’s new play “is modestly intriguing but lacks the taut, fine-tuned storytelling” of his Pulitzer-winning Doubt and even chides director Shanley because “the production clunks from one scene to another.” The News review writer concludes that the production’s most serious deficiency is its “fuzzy focus”: “Like coins in a collection plate, themes are tossed out” but the director-playwright " doesn’t tie threads together,” resulting in a performance that’s “too vague to be all that gripping or satisfying.” In Back Stage, David Sheward characterizes the structure of Storefront Church as a “scattershot approach” and adds that Shanley “lays on the symbolism a bit too thickly,” citing, among other examples, the gingerbread house-devouring bit. Sheward, however, does affirm that the play nonetheless “has much to recommend it.” Variety’s Stasio calls Shanley’s play “wordy, unfocused and unresolved,” concluding that the final scene includes some nice theatrics by several characters (especially Grenier’s dead-pan loan officer), “but good luck finding the dramatic logic of it.” Matt Windman pretty closely echoes Stasio in AM New York, calling the drama “socially conscious but superficial” and contrasting the “too sentimental” last scene with the “confrontational scenes” of the rest of the play. “Shanley should not have directed the play, and it could really use some trimming and focus,” insists Windman.