Not everyone believes in heaven and hell in the religious sense. Both words are tossed about with such nonchalance in every day conversations, it might be hard to consider that the belief of the existence of hell is the very catalyst for the collapse of one fellow’s life in “The Christians” at the Mark Taper Forum.  Yet even for those of us who have taken to arguing about religion on almost a daily basis in recent months, “The Christians” will seem a bit tedious and too preachy.

Beginning with two rousing gospel numbers, “The Christians” has a lovely set, one that has studied all the right things about color and crowds. The carpet is a bright blue. The crosses are large and more stylish symbols. We don’t see Christ crucified on them. The walls are white. On either side of the great stage are two screens where we see appropriate images of doves, beautiful skies, blooming flowers and trickling water falls. On the stage, poinsettias of red and white give us the red, white and blue that suggest patriotism. The people on stage, sitting in the five chairs with microphones at their sides, are dressed in suits, four men and one woman.

Lucas Hnah’s play begins as a celebration. The Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman) is celebrating the congregations first day out of debt. He recalls the growth of this congregation, from a small group of 10-15 members twenty years ago, to thousands. To build this grand church, required faith ten years ago. For Paul, life started with this church and he built it. He also recalls how on a Los Angeles to Florida plane trip, he met the woman who would become his wife, Elizabeth (Linda Powell).  She was sitting a distance away and he sent a message with the stewardess: “I have a powerful urge to communicate with you but I find the distance insurmountable.” That message becomes the theme of the play.

Today, he drops a bombshell, he doesn’t believe that an all-merciful God would sentence people to hell. He doesn’t believe there is a hell. He quibbles about the translation in passages that his associate pastor Joshua (Larry Powell) brings up. As anyone who has translated documents, narratives and novels knows and as Hnah points out in the program notes, “In seminary, you learn a lot about translation. You learn about how there can be more than one way to translate a word” and  “that pastors have to be very careful not to remake the gospel in their own image.”

With the growth of the congregations, Paul is involved in the business of being a pastor and writing sermons and speeches. His wife and Joshua are involved with the congregation members on a more personal level. When Joshua can’t agree with Paul’s new interpretation of hell or the lack of a hell and a place of damnation, he takes 50 members with him. A church elder, Jay (Philip Kerr), worries about this schism.

Paul can’t hear the murmurs or sense the discontent amongst his flock or even within his own household. One women, Jenny (Emily Donahoe), asks if there is no hell, is Hitler in heaven?  One can’t have the evildoers of the world unpunished.

This must be a hard conundrum for people who feel the primal need for revenge and must see the world, even the next world in black and white. There are moments of real interest, usually when Paul is speaking with Joshua, but even for the faithful, the play has the smug smile of a clever child standing in front of class, reveling in some intellectual factoid that wins him no hearts or minds.

Translation of documents is a tricky thing and there’s no resolution as to how at least the playwright feels the Bible should be interpreted on the existence of heaven and hell. Paul says, “I believe what I believe because I know it is true” is something that all of the characters feel or at least want to feel. There are no bad guys here, but there is still, in the case of a large church, a business bottom line: No crowds and the bills can’t be paid. That, of course, isn’t a proof of truth, but a lesson in economics.

“The Christians” is too intellectual for its own good and lacks an emotional heart. The play runs about 90 minutes without an intermission. “The Christians” continues until January 10, 2016 at the Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.

.Performance Days and Times:

• Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.

• Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m.

• Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.

• No performance on Mondays.

• Exceptions: No 8 p.m. performance on Thursday, December 24 (Christmas Eve); 

  Fridays, December 25 (Christmas Day) and January 1 (New Year’s Day). Added 8 p.m.

  performance on Mondays, December 21 and December 28.

Ticket Prices: $25 – $85

(Ticket prices are subject to change.)

Tickets are available

• Online at http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

• By calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at 213.628.2772

• In person at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Music Center

Group Sales: 213.972.7231

Deaf community information and charge: visit CenterTheatreGroup.org/ProjectDATE or call TTY (213) 680-7703

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