John Patrick Shanley has the gift, always rare among playwrights, of writing scenes that convey both shape and spontaneity. You never feel with him that his characters are being shoved this way or that, for the sake of a previously worked-out agenda. Things happen in a Shanley play because they happen, not because the author nagged or nudged the characters into making them do so. The inevitable downside is that sometimes they don’t happen, or happen too easily; the characters are prone to let their talk wander from the point, and to settle their affairs all too conveniently when they remember to come back to it.
This often gives a Shanley play the effect of being simultaneously light and deep, as it does in his new Storefront Church (Atlantic Theater). The taut intensity of the more conventionally plotted Doubt and Defiance has gone, leaving us back in the more casual world of earlier Shanley works like Savage in Limbo—a Bronx, for Shanley is a Bronx boy first and last, where a few oddly mixed characters intersect, cutting across each others’ lives and lines of talk.
But some differences have arisen. The Bronx of the early Shanley works, climaxing in his screenplay for the movie Moonstruck, was largely Irish and Italian; the shadow of the Catholic Church hung steeply over it. Though rattled by economic and political pressures from outside, the new Bronx of Storefront Church is, with typically Shanleyan sweet insouciance, contentedly multiethnic. Its characters include a secular Jew (Bob Dishy), a retired tax accountant blissfully sharing life with a Caribbean-accented Latina woman, Jessie Cortez (Tonya Pinkins); an African-American preacher (Ron Cephas Jones), who has lost his faith while trying to start over in New York after his New Orleans church was washed away by Katrina; and Donaldo, the Bronx borough president (Giancarlo Esposito), himself a Latino storefront preacher’s son, who has known Jessie since his childhood.
Because Jessie has leased the basement of her house to the young preacher and taken out a second mortgage to pay for its renovation, two non-Bronx characters cut in: an obstinate bank loan officer (Zach Grenier) with an elaborate personal backstory, and his bank’s CEO (Jordan Lage), a manipulative glad-hander who uses Donaldo’s attempts to intercede on Jessie’s behalf as an opportunity to enlist borough government support for a new bank-planned mall.
Despite this plenitude of plot, Storefront Church‘s action, happening in a loopy, half-coincidental way, is rarely its point. Far more interesting to Shanley is the characters’ multi-accented cross talk, which touches on a wide range of ideas: the contemporary world’s lack of faith and its constant temptation to despair; the individual’s fight to survive with dignity in a world dominated by mega-capitalism and the corporate state. Shanley’s people bat these and related notions back and forth, in dialogue that sometimes suggests an update of Shaw’s middle-period talk plays, and sometimes the wisecracking of an animated cartoon.
Unsurprisingly, everything works out for the best; even Shanley’s darkest view of humanity has sunshine in it. Jessie gets to keep her house; the minister conquers his despair sufficiently to hold a service; the loan officer rediscovers his self-respect; and the Bronx, apparently, gets its mall, with 15 percent of the space earmarked for community use. Knowingly, Shanley makes these resolutions seem transitory and insufficient. Everybody is compromised, everybody is confused, and only the CEO, who darts from the scene with his goals attained and the issue of his core beliefs still unconfronted, seems wholly free to maneuver at will.
This ambiguous panorama supplies, all too clearly, a portrait of our puzzling time, when one’s beliefs and one’s sense of self must live under constant pressure from forces not wholly seen and not yet fully arrived. Our world is going somewhere, but where we don’t yet know. A little warmth, a little cake, a little hymn, says Shanley, and maybe we will have the strength to see it through. It’s easy enough to believe, when the warmth emanates from a cast as sublime as the one he has assembled here. Grenier, given the showiest opportunities, nearly steals the evening, but his five cunning colleagues have their big moments so firmly in hand that you’d have to call it a photo finish.