Through Sunday, March 11
PlayMakers Repertory Company, Chapel Hill

Is Christianity a religion predicated on coercion, punishment, and fear? If you remove those elements, is anything left? Those are the pointed central questions playwright Lucas Hnath probes in his controversial one-act drama, The Christians, part of a two-play symposium on religion now in rotating repertory at PlayMakers.

It’s Sunday morning in a house of worship patterned on the megachurches that have sprung up across America in recent years. The church has just paid off the considerable debt on a stadium-sized building that boasts a coffee shop in the lobby and a baptismal as big as a swimming pool. Its earnest, charismatic leader, Pastor Paul (Joey Collins), is about to spring a radical changea new vision of the gospelon his congregation, his board of directors, and his wife.

Well, it worked for Moses. But then, that spiritual leader had two impressive visual aids as backup: tablets with commandments etched by the hand of God. All Paul has is a handful of receipts from a pastor’s convention at the Orlando Marriott to affirm his new belief that there is neither a literal devil nor a literal hell.

“There is no little man with horns,” Paul claims a voice of conscience and revelation has told him. “There is only you and your fellow man … You wanna see Hell? Look around.” When Joshua (Alex Givens), a younger, more conservative associate pastor, challenges him mid-service, Paul calmly deconstructs the scriptures Joshua offers to support the premise of eternal damnation.

Paul’s new conclusion goes “against everything our church believes,” Joshua asserts, before leaving with his followers to start a new congregation. But as his adherents attack Paul’s change of faith from withoutand schoolchildren tell Paul’s vulnerable daughter her dad is going to hellbedeviling fears undermine Paul’s church and marriage from within.

The church’s board fears the change’s destabilizing effects on what Elder Jay (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) calls “a massive corporation.” It’s poignant when a struggling single mother (Christine Mirzayan) capitulates to the bullying of a new boyfriend as she fears for the spiritual welfare of her child, but it’s nearly tragic when she concludes that she can’t understand Paul’s new idea of heaven: “If I can’t imagine it, then I can’t believe it, and if I can’t believe in Heaven, that makes me feel lonely and scared.”

Paul’s conflicts with his wife point to the irreducible distance between visionaries and their followers and the vanity of a spiritual egoist determined to stage-manage revelations to maximize their impact and minimize risk. Paul’s vision of Christianity is tantalizing: a belief that lifts up all and oppresses none. But, in the end, it’s unclear how many are truly ready to embrace it.

By comparison, Tartuffe, David Ball’s adaptation of Molière’s consummate spiritual hypocrite, is a comic soufflé whose absurdity is only heightened by the distinctive poetic rhythm employed whenever the title character speaks. Because the last time most of us encountered this much trisyllable tetrameter was in the books of Dr. Seuss, Joey Collins’s Tartuffe comes off as something akin to a sanctimonious Cat in the Hat, albeit one wholly disinterested in cleaning up the mess he makes.

Shanelle Nicole Leonard shines as Dorine, the outspoken maid to Orgon (Ray Dooley), the patriarch deceived by the unctuous Tartuffe. Brandon Haynes’s rewarding paroxysms of frustration as Damis, Orgon’s son, elicit laughter. Adam Poole and April Mae Davis take quarrelling lovers Valere and Mariane for a rewarding spin, while family friend Cleante (Rishan Dhamija) tries in vain to restore sense to this addled house. Delectable dance breaks choreographed by Tracy Bersley add a certain je ne sais quoi to this theatrical dessertan appropriate counterbalance to Hnath’s far weightier main course.