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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The first two plays in the trilogy, Doubt and Defiance, dealt with hierarchal institutions that were part of his personal history, as a parochial school high school student in the '60s and a marine at Camp Lejeun e in the '70s. Storefront Church is the result of his wandering through the Bronx many years later and then connecting the many little informal churches he saw to our current financial and social problems. Thus the new play moves forward to the present century and focuses on the fallout of the mortgage crisis on people in a Bronx neighborhood. That includes an ambitious boroough president, a CEO and lending officer of a big bank and a woman faced with losing her house before its street level basement can be transformed into a church — the kind of non traditional religious place that Shanley seems to see as an ad hoc answer to filling the need for spirituality and community.
The clash between an ethical life ruled by love and worldly success defined by money and power is a theme well worth exploring. However, details about how banks deal with mortgages and underwrite projects like shopping malls isn't likely to fire up the kind of love enthusiasm Doubt's story of pedophelia in a parochial school. Like Defiance, the trilogy's middle play, Storefront Church isn't as flawless as the much produced Pulitzer winning Doubt.
The problem with this latest story about faith and the mortgage business is that Shanley weighs down his attention worthy theme with too much superfluous material. While his direction includes some fine flourishes, it's staged with too many fussy and distracting scene changes to give the viewer a chance to become deeply engaged. Two very brief wordless park bench scenes are quite lovely but puzzling. Zach Grenier's park bench interlude is picturesquely enhanced by lighting designer Matthew Richards' snow, seem there to make big business out of Bob Dishy's amusing small business about the lessons to be learned from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. However, these silent mood pieces may have you wondering about the necessity of all these scenery shifts which have the prop movers more on stage than off and whether they're being paid at actors'' rates.
Shanley's intentions do play out more powerfully in the second act. If he weren't directing his own work and thus, like most authors, loathe to sacrifice anything, he might have been persuaded to concede that the 90 minute length and simple scenery that worked so well for both Doubt and Defiance would have been a quicker and cleaner approach for getting to the heart of the drama and make the whole more invigoratingly paced.
On the plus side, Shanley has, as usual, created a vivid group of characters and is fortunate to have a cast that make them jump from page to stage with cogent genuineness. The Shenlayan landscape may be too cluttered and slow moving, at least in the first act, but these actors turn their characters into finely etched portraits.
First on stage and powerful enough to raise expectations for being amused and moved are Zach Grenier as an uptight, facially disfigured bank lending officer Reed Van Druyten and Bob Dishy as Ethan Goldklang, a Jewish accountant, Ethan has come to Van Druyten's office with chocolate cake instead of his Puerto Rican wife's long past due mortgage payment on their home. Dishy enriches his persona in his subsequent stage turns and Grenier evolves into a both funny and touching character
Next up is Ethan's wife Jessie Cortez (Tonya Pinkins) pleading her case to Donaldo Calderon (Giancarlo Esposito), the Puerto Rican-Italian Bronx Borough president. Pinkins, who has recently been collecting well deserved praise for her contributions to Milk and Sugar and Hurt Village is here saddled with an odd Puerto Rican accent. (She does, however, get to display her lovely singing voice in the play's best scene). Esposito, probably best known for his small and big screen roless (e.g. Breaking Bad), is terrifically compelling as the ambitious politician most affected by the difficulties of living a moral life and also one of worldly success and power.
Jordan Lage, an Atlantic Theater regular, zestfully takes on the bank CEO Tom Raidenberg who is untroubled by questions of morality. He's the guy you love to hate, but as played by Lage, he's almost likeable, and definitely delightfully watchable. His nibbling away at a gingerbread house given to him as a Christmas present by his secretary makes for a terrific visual metaphor. The avaricious cookie eater's surname is also smartly symbolic.
Ron Cephas Jones rounds out the cast as Chester Kimmich, the preacher whose still inoperative storefront church in the basement of Jessie's house is the cause of her financial problems. The preacher's crisis of faith brings the entire cast together for a fanciful but absorbing and moving finale. If everything were as well paced and clear as that scene, Storefront Church would be a triumphant concluding chapter to Mr. Shanley's triptych. As it stands, the play is worth seeing by anyone who appreciates top drawer acting, but it would have been more of a quibble free must see with a less-is-more script and production.
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