Since 2010, the Fellowship for Performing Arts (under its founder, Max McLean) has been producing plays with Christian content, pieces that are meant to wrestle meaningfully with our worser angels. The works are made from a place of total religious conviction, so if you don’t believe, they can be extremely awkward — and indeed, even if you go into the current offering, Martin Luther on Trial, clinging to your mustard seed of faith, it can be a troubling experience.
Trial grapples with Protestantism’s founding father, in particular the ugly turn Luther’s thoughts took after he’d already upended the Catholic Church. Co-writers Chris Cragin-Day and McLean imagine Luther’s soul wrenched from Heaven into metaphysical jeopardy, thanks to Satan (Paul Schoeffler), who has gotten a flea up his nose about Luther’s divisiveness. After centuries of “bugging Jesus,” the Prince of Darkness manages to wangle a trial on the issue, complete with a parade of historical-ghost witnesses and, as the defense attorney, Luther’s wife, Katie (Kersti Bryan). Luther is accused of the “unforgivable sin” — rejection of the Holy Spirit.
The earliest parts of the play, testimony around Luther’s anti-Semitism, are the most chilling. We hear how Luther, incensed at being unable to convert the Jews, began to call for pogroms a few years before his death. Since Hitler (Mark Boyett) is Satan’s first witness, you’d think Lucifer has tidily made his case. But the show’s main problem is a side effect of its courage: It opens a door to questioning God’s judgment in bringing such a man into Heaven, but then it doesn’t quite walk through.
In one of the flashbacks between testimonials, Luther (Fletcher McTaggart) has a conversation with Saint Paul (the marvelous Boyett again) about grace. Luther’s core philosophy held that Jesus didn’t save souls for their earthly “works” but rather out of pure divine generosity. When the arguments between the Devil (all soap-opera sonorousness and calligraphic eyebrows) and Katie get really heated, the play returns to the notion of salvation-just-because and lets Luther slide neatly off its hook. Thus, after two hours — as if he’s heard a divine message that things have been going on too long — director Michael Parva abruptly bathes Luther’s face in bright light, cranks up the hymns, and dumps the balm of deliverance all over old Martin, whether he’s made his case or no. The play snatches the “fair hearing” premise out from under us — and the sudden collapse of theological argument makes you feel a bit bad for Lucifer, who was at least arguing in good faith.
McLean’s productions enjoy making Christianity a kind of bout between God and the Great Adversary, and that can be a surprisingly watchable contest. But it loses its fun when you sense the writers throwing the game for the player they favor. It’s hard enough they unintentionally make us root for the Devil; they didn’t need to foul the field, too.
Martin Luther on Trial
Directed by Michael Parva
The Pearl Theater
555 West 42nd Street, Manhattan
Through January 29