The Jesus Fund

Burning Coal Theatre
Through Feb. 16

Terry Milner’s new playhis firstis very definitely of its time. Driven by issues and ideas more than emotions or dramatic situations, The Jesus Fund, directed by Beth Gardiner, explores the Balkanization of American life, particularly in regard to religion and spirituality.

Set in a failing seminary located on a hunk of prime Manhattan real estate, The Jesus Fund‘s characters include an aged dean (Tom McCleister, barely audible), a sour-tempered professor who’s just published a book called Secular Christianity (a surprisingly one-note Gregor McElvogue) and three students: a woman about to be ordained as an Episcopal priest, a Jew and a Muslim (Carly Prentis Jones, Ian Finley and Rajeev Rajendran, all of whom get maximum juice out of dry parts).

Enter the visitor: Dr. David Padgett, a former student who is now a rich televangelist. He’s been invited to take part in a “red church/blue church” forum.

Much of the script is predictable, but under his bleached hair and bad suit, this televangelist is complex and quite surprising. David Henderson is first-rate as Padgett, a doctor of divinity with a Harvard MBA, a slick salesman at the head of a come-to-Jesus moneymaking empire whose even more famous father is still the power behind their operation in Topeka, Kan.

Although Padgett is really there to deal the seminary a death blow with a cash-sheathed sword, he’s so happy to be back in a place where people argue about ideas and beliefs that he undergoes a radical transformation. He also has all the best lines, which he delivers with zest as Milner’s script prods us with philosophical questions like whether religion requires faith or simply ethics, and what it means to believe in God.

The play contains echoes of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard in that the seminary people just can’t fathom the disruption portended by the red ink on their balance sheets. Although the seminarians have wandered intellectually from their religious roots, they remain in bondage to their traditions, physically represented by the land, buildings and trees of the seminary quadrangle.

The tripartite set by Michael Minahan is very smart, and makes unusually good use of the small stage space, while Caitlin Cisek’s costuming is good all around. There is more potential for real drama here than Milner manages to exploit, but the play’s acute intelligence and passion for ideas makes me hungry to see his next work.

This article appeared in print with the headline “New testaments.”