By Manning Harris
Theatrical Outfit is running John Patrick Shanley’s comedy/drama “Storefront Church,” featuring some of Atlanta’s best actors, extended through May 3. The director is David de Vries.
Yes, that John Patrick Shanley: Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Moonstruck,” and Pulitzer and Tony-winning author of “Doubt.” You probably saw the film version with Meryl Streep and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman; and who has not seen the delightful “Moonstruck,” which won Oscars for Cher and Olympia Dukakis?
However, that was then. If the great Tennessee Williams faltered from time to time (and he did), so can Shanley. “Storefront Church” is the third of his so-called “church and state” trilogy, which includes “Doubt” and “Defiance.” Though well-intentioned and quite provocative on several levels (it had a short off-Broadway run in 2012), it’s hard to believe the author of “Moonstruck” and “Doubt,” both so tight and riveting that you wouldn’t change a word, created this interesting but top-heavy play.
However, Theatrical Outfit’s timing is impeccable: The current news is all abuzz with young CEO Dan Price’s announcing that all his 120-member staff will receive immediate, impressive raises, while Price himself is taking a gigantic cut in his own large salary. You see, massive wealth and income inequality is one of Shanley’s themes.
So are questions of religion, ethics, and spirituality; they’re all worthwhile subjects, but they tend to make the play needlessly weighty when it should have wings.
“Storefront Church” tells the story of Bronx Borough President Donaldo Calderon (Anthony Rodriguez), who is forced by the mortgage crisis to confront a rudderless local minister named Chester Kimmich (E. Roger Mitchell), who won’t or can’t pay his mortage to Jessie (Donna Biscoe), who’s got a sick but very feisty husband (Ethan, played by Clayton Landey).
Ethan goes to see Reed (Joe Knezevich), whose oft-repeated “I’m an officer of the bank” is both comical and pathetic. Reed, who’s been shot in the face by his ex-wife, is deaf in one ear, partially blind in one eye, and also has an odd speech tic. He’s miserable and a mess.
Somehow they all end up in bank CEO Tom Raidenberg’s (Tom Key) office, though not at the same time, and finally meet at a church service, of sorts, at Chester’s storefront church, which is actually the ground floor of Jessie’s condo.
I could go on and on with character and plot permutations, but I shan’t be a spoiler. And it’s more enlightening and fun to mention the show’s assets.
First, playwright Shanley has not lost his talent for witty lines (Ethan: “Either I just became a member of the Divine Plan for Salvation Church, or you just became a secular Jew.”) or quirky characters that you can root for.
Second, the actors. The cast is a virtual who’s who of the best actors in Atlanta; I’ll simply list them in the program order: Donna Biscoe, Clayton Landey, Tom Key, Joe Knezevich, E. Roger Mitchell, Anthony P. Rodriguez. Their credits are endless: Mr. Knezevich’s superb “Hamlet” at Georgia Shakespeare two seasons back (what he does in “Storefront” to disguise his magnificent voice and bearing is alchemy); Mr. Landey’s “Warrior Class” at the Alliance—he is the consummate professional; Mr. Key in “Red” at Theatrical Outfit, in which he and Jimi Kocina electrified audiences. And on and on.
In “Storefront Church” Mr. Rodriguez may be first among equals, and that’s saying something. Ms. Biscoe and Mr. Mitchell are also excellent. You see this play for the actors, first.
For me, the disparate elements of “Storefront” simply do not coalesce in a way that is theatrically compelling. Shanley, Pulitzer laureate that he is, has created a fascinating work in progress.
Preacher Chester: “This soul we share. We got to take care of each other. Do you hear what I’m saying?” No argument here. This may be the ultimate theme.
For tickets and information, visit theatricaloutfit.org.