If living in America guarantees freedom of religion, living in New York City ought to guarantee freedom from religion. But no religion seems to mean no belief—at least in anything substantial—according to writer-director Young Jean Lee’s Church, a mimicry of a very mild (and mildly dull) Christian service. The play eventually comes to its senses for a moment, but it’s too little, and too late.
The first monologue in this deadpan series of sermons, dances, and hymns takes place in the dark, as an actor in the sound booth joshingly harangues the audience for its lame values in a manner reminiscent of Lee’s more caustic mentor, Mac Wellman—”You are deluded babies!” “You are a spiritual black hole!” “You who feel that you are too fat . . . let go of these superficialities!” Though Lee’s writing is lucid and frequently amusing, the softness of her targets suggests (as she has admitted in the Voice) that Church contains as much self-accusation as social critique—surely the hipster crowd she addresses didn’t invent vanity, nor is it their worst sin.
Once the lights come up, four conservatively dressed actors—cleanly scrubbed downtown types, really—deliver their “testimonials.” These are actually long, eloquent speeches about spiritual conversion and glory that occasionally swoop into a delightful absurdity and dream logic far more in line with authentic Christianity than Lee dares to explore. “The love of Jesus is a baby goat,” says Rev. Greg (Greg Hildreth), quite earnestly. The moment gets a laugh, but the idea’s nothing compared to, say, the cannibalism implied by the Eucharist.
Because Church creates such a gentle simulacrum of religion, its aims are difficult to parse—the piece seeks to comment on Christianity without taking a position, to convert without religious fervor (or even passionate oratory), to scold insincerity while indulging in it. The exception is a brief monologue in which one of the reverends whispers a straightforward prayer of thanks for, among other things, the health and safety of her family, “friends who care about me,” a profession that does not cause suffering, and “air-conditioning.” (The latter won’t sound funny in August, believe you me.) With this sincere speech, Lee inadvertently proves that one of our worst sins is to pretend that religion is the only thing worth believing in.