By Lucy Komisar
The original title of this play was to be “Sleeping Demon.” In the script, a preacher (Ron Cephas Jones) says, “Conscience is a sleeping demon.” In this third of John Patrick Shanley‘s trilogy called Church and State, which began with “Doubt” and “Defiance” about tough moral choices, he deals with the bankers who foreclose on mortgages and a local politician whose attempt to save a constituent‘s home is compromised by the fact his mother co-signed the mortgage and the bank CEO wants his approval for a $300-million shopping mall.
I like what Shanley attempts to do. But this is the weakest of the trilogy, and succeeds mostly on the comic one-liners that pepper the script. It also succeeds on the very fine acting of the company, especially Bob Dishy as an in-your-face elderly (secular Jewish) New Yorker, Tonya Pinkins as his (religious Hispanic) wife, and Giancarlo Esposito as a Bronx social-justice-committed borough president. (Have to say that having a Bronx politician who is not a crook is a breath of fresh air.)
Bob Dishy is delightful as Ethan Goldklang, a fount of down-home political wisdom: “This country was built by greats. They died and midgets moved in.” (Klang is German for sound or tone and he indeed has a golden tone.) He refers to a foreclosure document as a maroon paper, explaining, “The house is under water, so I‘m marooned.”
Tonya Pinkins is terrific as his wife Jessie Cortez, who has taken a $30,000 second mortgage on the house to finance improvements for the preacher living down-stairs who wants to open a storefront church. He pays no rent.
Giancarlo Esposito is excellent as the borough president, Donaldo Calderon, who insists to Jessie, who comes to him for help, that, “The Bronx doesn‘t need another church.” But he is dragged in by his mother‘s commitment.
It all comes together at the storefront church where the preacher reminds everyone that, “Conscience is a sleeping demon.” But the moral choices are really not too problematic. The bank wants to finance the mall. Donaldo says it would provide just minimum wage jobs in chain stores. Or they could use the land for a community center. Well, perhaps there can be a deal here.
The banker (Jordan Lage) offers to forgive the house debt (turning it into a commercial debt which somehow can be written off – interesting, that!) and it is never said, just understood, that could be in exchange for supporting the mall. So what will the borough president do?
There‘s a side story involving a bank loan officer (Zach Grenier) whose wife shot him in the face when she discovered him having an affair with a gorgeous Russian. He doesn‘t go to church but shows up at the storefront. The preacher has a chance to save a soul.
The lines are clever and funny, offering lots of laughs. The audience has a good time. The plot-line is a bit cut and dried. It’s worthwhile to see for those who follow Shanley’s work. I enjoyed it, but if one holds Shanley to a higher standard than most, one can’t consider this his best.
“Storefront Church.” Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley. Atlantic Theater, 336 West 20th Street, New York City. 212-279-4200. Opened June 11, 2012; closes July 1, 2012.