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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Would mega-churches be as full, or as wealthy, if the pastors stopped preaching about hell? That's the question that drives Lucas Hnath's play The Christians at the Mark Taper Forum.

Thanks to Dane Laffrey's inspired set design, the Taper has been transformed into a frighteningly convincing mega-church. Well, not so 'mega' at 750 seats. One imagines the church this play is dealing with probably numbers in the thousands, not the hundreds. We, the audience, are cast as the parishioners, here for Pastor Paul's Sunday sermon. Center stage a choir, above us to the left and right giant monitors that alternately project the scripture and soothing pastoral images.

After a rousing hymn from the choir, Pastor Paul gets up to . . . well, not quite deliver us from evil because today's sermon questions the very existence of hell. Pastor Paul has had something of a revelation on this day that the church’s debts are finally paid off. What if you didn't have to come to church and you didn't have to tithe in order to be saved? What if the hell of the bible were really just an ancient garbage dump rather than a Dante-ian inferno? What if everyone went to heaven? Everyone.

Needless to say this causes something of an uproar. It goes against the very foundation of this church's beliefs. Assistant Pastor Joshua quickly resigns. The congregation's divided. Forgive the pun but . . . all hell breaks loose.

What we see over the course of the play's 90 minutes is how this sermon plays out in the life of the congregation and profoundly in the eternal life of Pastor Paul's marriage.

Lucas Hnath's play is meant as something of a provocation. He's questioning not so much faith but the quid pro quo of redemption. Much has been made of Mr. Hnath's own religious upbringing and which side he really takes.

The challenge with the play is it likely doesn't go far enough -- either for the devout or the skeptical. For the true believers in the audience, it never really becomes the scriptural debate that the question deserves. Mr. Hnath gives a little back and forth between the two pastors but not enough if you're really versed. Now for those already questioning the church, again, the play only scratches the surface. The hypocrisy of tithing to build empires for the likes of Jim and Tammy Faye, is just chapter one.

The Christians becomes a little bit like that guy at a dinner party who provokes a fascinating debate but doesn't quite see it through.

That shouldn't stop you from seeing it. There's some lovely acting especially from Larry Powell and Emily Donahoe who play the assistant pastor and one of the questioning choir members. Just know, you'll probably leave wanting more.

The Christians plays at the Mark Taper Forum downtown through January 10.

For info on the show and to subscribe to the new KCRW theater newsletter with weekly picks of what to see in LA - and more theater coverage - check out kcrw.com/newsletters.

Next week, my picks for the Best of the Year in LA Theater.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.


Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission.
Photo: Linda Powell and Andrew Garman in The Christians at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. (Craig Schwartz)

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