A disappointing ending for John Patrick Shanley’s ‘Church and State’ trilogy

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Bob Dishy, Tonya Pinkins, Zach Grenier and Ron Cephas Jones. ()
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Storefront Church has all the elements of an epic drama to chronicle our troubled times: greedy bankers, corrupt politicians, a populist preacher, and an honest woman facing eviction while everyone else dukes it out around her.

But instead, the play thinks small, becoming a minor, character-driven piece where the stakes are relatively low.

Set in a down-and-out Bronx neighborhood, Storefront Church is the final piece of the “Church and State” trilogy by playwright John Patrick Shanley; the first two were the Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt (2004) and the next year’s Defiance. All three take on American institutions of power (the Catholic Church, the military, and now the banking system), and all three have a keen sense of how class, race, and gender play into power. But here, Shanley’s critique lacks the brutal incisiveness of his earlier efforts.

Jessie Cortez has fallen behind on her rent since she subleased her ground floor to a preacher who wants to open a storefront church. Stuck in a spiritual rut, the preacher hasn’t felt like opening his doors, so he hasn’t collected any money from churchgoers, meaning he’s been stiffing Jessie, who is now faced with eviction. Pleading with the bank doesn’t help, so Jessie approaches her personal friend Donaldo Calderon—the Bronx borough president. He’s reluctant to intervene, but he ultimately has no choice: He’s personally connected to Jessie, financially connected to the bank, and politically connected to the entire neighborhood. There is, it turns out, a way to solve everyone’s problems, but nobody is going to preserve any kind of moral purity. When money, politics, and religion mix, Shanley implies, this is always how it goes.

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The cast is often sharp, particularly Tonya Pinkins, who allows a hint of humor and a dash of conniving to complicate her otherwise earnest portrayal of Jessie, and Giancarlo Esposito, who struggles mightily as Donaldo to keep his integrity intact even when such a thing seems improbable. Bob Dishy brings a welcome sense of levity as Jessie’s husband Ethan, and Tom Raidenberg offers a restrained note of condescending smarminess as bank C.E.O. Jordan Lage, a role that in less capable hands might be just a Grinch-like cartoon.

But despite some fine acting, the play doesn’t quite come together. Slow pacing—the entire two-hour play consists of only a half-dozen drawn-out scenes—keeps the tension from building. A couple of characters make the comic elements sputter: the morose preacher sucks the life out of his scenes without ever seeming profound or sympathetic, while the bank’s disfigured loan officer gets laughs that seem cheap and easy, actually diminishing the unique anti-clerical perspective he might bring to the script. But most of all, the moral quandary at the center of the drama isn’t really such a quandary.

We’ve seen thousands of examples of truly tragic dilemmas during this economic downturn: home-owners forced into foreclosure despite their best efforts, predatory banks screwing people out of their houses, banks gambling with unknowing customers’ savings. But here, the bank seems perfectly reasonable, and the culprit—a preacher who doesn’t really feel like preaching these days—entirely unreasonable; the (relatively) innocent woman who’s going to pay the price tries to blame the bank, but it’s hard to see how the blame falls on anyone but the preacher. True, he’s not feeling moved by the spirit. But if not feeling moved were an excuse for not working and not paying bills, I wouldn’t have to pay my own rent most months, and neither would you. Change the storefront church into a storefront candy shop, run by a man who just didn’t feel like opening his shop or paying his rent, and suddenly the story isn’t about greedy bankers screwing over the little guy, but rather a story about a man of the cloth who thought he could take advantage of everyone around him.

“You can’t let a pack of jackals crazy for money lead the way,” the preacher cautions about the bankers, but who’s really the one with blood on his fangs? In the end, everyone has to sacrifice something—the bank, the politician, even Jessie. The only one who seems to get off without any punishment is the only one who ever did anything that was indisputably wrong: the preacher. Everyone else is soiled as a result of his actions, or lack thereof, while he stands at the center of the storm, holier than thou.

Come to think of it, maybe this isn’t a play about the evils of the banking system. Maybe it’s another play, like Doubt, about religious hypocrisy. If so, it’s a clever sleight of hand for the playwright, but the new play doesn’t benefit from the comparison: While Doubt’s memorable final moments left audiences with mouths agape, Storefront Church leaves them with little more than a shrug.

Storefront Church is showing at the Atlantic Theater, 336. W. 20th Street. Tickets are $65. Call 212-279-4200.