NEW YORK (AP) — A constituent angrily tells a politician, “You’ve become a bottle of smoke,” in John Patrick Shanley‘s new drama, “Storefront Church,” which is about the nature of faith with a capital F.
Written and directed by Shanley, a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner, the intense drama about several related crises of faith opened in a quirky yet searing production Monday night off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company‘s newly renovated Linda Gross Theater.
Featuring an accomplished cast, the edgy “Storefront Church” completes what Shanley calls his “Church and State” trilogy, following his 2004 “Doubt” (which won a drama Pulitzer) and his 2006 “Defiance.” Thrown together by a mortgage crisis, a basically decent, ethically-conflicted, fictional Bronx borough president and a high-minded preacher who’s a Hurricane Katrina refugee from New Orleans square off in an intense confrontation about their individual commitments to their social and spiritual beliefs.
Giancarlo Esposito is scrappy and cynical as up-and-coming politician Donaldo Calderon, whose somewhat naive constituent Jessie Cortez (a luminous Tonya Pinkins) comes to him for help with an imminent foreclosure after ill-advisedly taking out a second mortgage so a preacher could renovate her first floor storefront into a church.
Jessie believes in the preacher, Chester Kimmich (strongly portrayed with elegant gravitas by Ron Cephas Jones), even though he hasn’t paid her back any money in ten months. After her husband (a down-on-his-luck, hardworking elderly accountant, played mainly for laughs by Bob Dishy) has a heart attack in front of the loan officer, Jessie is determined to get Calderon to intercede for her with the bank.
Pinkins is whimsically funny as the determined Jessie verbally spars with the politician, guilt-tripping him with every childhood and neighborhood connection she can think of, eventually announcing that she’s lost faith in him.
When Calderon caves in to Jessie and confronts the preacher, he’s skeptical when Kimmich claims he’s awaiting the return of his missing faith and clarity of vision. The two commence an energetic argument in which the politician ends up quite on the defensive about the effectiveness of his own social agenda.
Zach Grenier is moving as a tragic shell of a man, loan officer Reed Van Druyten, whose wife shot him for having an affair and is now loathing him from prison. His deep loneliness for his lost mistress is displayed in one of the play’s several affecting wordless scenes, as he sits alone in a wintery park gazing sadly at a cup of coffee next to him.
In a visual triumph and wickedly funny metaphor for our time, the heartless CEO of the bank, aptly named Tom Raidenberg (played with well-tuned false heartiness by Jordan Lage,) rips apart and wolfs down a little gingerbread house while breezily spinning an entrapment web around Calderon. Esposito makes a remarkable transformation from confident politician to uncertain pilgrim still seeking genuine meaning in his life.
When all six characters come together for a Sunday morning service in the humble storefront church, the outcome is not necessarily surprising, but it’s very satisfying. Even a shabby room can become a community, a sanctuary for respite from what the preacher calls “mindless activity and organized greed.”