nytheatre.com review by Steven Cherry
June 13, 2012
John Patrick Shanley is one America’s finest living writers for stage and screen. He’s best known for Doubt, which earned him both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize, but among his many other excellent works, he also won an Academy Award for Moonstruck.
Storefront Church is the final play in a trilogy that began in 2004 with Doubt and continued with 2006’s Defiance. I didn’t see Defiance, but I did see Doubt twice on Broadway (both the Jones/O'Byrne and Atkins/Eldard casts), as well as the nearly identical movie version.
A program note for Storefront Church argues for the unity of the trilogy: Doubt concerns a crisis of belief, Defiance a “crisis of conscience,” and the current work a “mortgage crisis and—more directly, really—a spiritual crisis of which the borough president and the minister are two sides.”
In Doubt a Catholic priest either did or did not molest a young student at the parish school that is attached to the diocese in which the priest serves. The principal, a nun, is convinced he has done so, or at least she acts accordingly and tries to get him to resign or be dismissed. The play walks a knife-edge for its entire length and the audience is left at the end to ponder the innocence of the priest and—surprisingly—the strength of the principal’s conviction.
In Storefront Church a devout Bronx woman named Jessie Cortez has bankrupted herself by lending a minister $30,000 to start a church in the ground-floor space of the building she owns. The bank is about to foreclose, so she visits Bronx Borough President Donaldo Calderon and begs him to intercede. He’s surprised to hear that minister has spent the entire $30,000 but has yet to hold a service. This is the aforementioned spiritual crisis that leads to the mortgage crisis: Without a service, he can’t take up a collection, and therefore he has no means to pay her rent. What has he been doing all this time? In the surprisingly unclimactic scene in which Calderon visits the minister, we learn the latter has been “staring at the hole in the ground that opened up before him.”
With the terrific acoustics of the Atlantic Theater Company’s newly remodeled Linda Gross Theatre, you could hear the creaking of the plot: Cortez is close friends with the borough president’s mother, who has cosigned the $30,000 loan; Cortez’s husband quickly has a heart attack at the bank—a nonfatal one; indeed, he spryly attends the final church-going scene—perhaps provoking the pangs of conscience we see later in the bank officer (in a painfully obvious winter scene, the first of two, on a lonely park bench); the borough president has an upcoming meeting anyway with the bank’s CEO, who is pushing an enormous and enormously important development deal for the borough; the borough president’s father was an unsuccessful minister of a storefront church. Then there’s the spiritual crisis: The minister finds himself spiritually bereft after his church in Louisiana was washed away by Katrina. (The 1755 Lisbon earthquake turned a generation of Europeans toward atheism, but Katrina is apparently just the right size disaster for a temporary paralysis of faith.)
None of these devices has much plausibility, and in fact the strangest, the minister’s incapacity, upon which the play turns, might be the least unbelievable of them. For one moment, in the key scene in which the borough president visits the minister and implores him to hold services, take up a collection, and pay some rent, Shanley invests in the minister’s inaction a nobility that allows the play to briefly mount the same knife-edged arête that Doubt rides for its full 90 minutes. Unfortunately, in the climactic church service final scene, that uncertainty, and the minister’s spiritual crisis—and the mortgage crisis as well—dissolve. I won’t reveal the ending except to say it’s a certain one—the audience is left with no questions, just a big unconvincing answer.
With all that said, Storefront Church isn’t a bad play. Creative writing teachers say plot and character are two sides of the same coin, but as weak as the plot is, the characters remain strong, and an exceptional cast, led by Giancarlo Esposito as the borough president and Ron Cephas Jones as the minister, makes the most of them. The production itself is suave and professional, and the scene changes are particularly efficient and clever. And there are some wonderful touches, such as a speech that uses the metaphor of chess pieces by taking the point of view of the captured pieces on the side of the board. There are, unfortunately, at least as many false notes, such as the husband giving the bank officer the finger in the middle of his heart attack. That John Patrick Shanley can do better than this, there can be no doubt.