The Church of Why Not
Theatre 167 shows us a week in the life of a beloved Upper West Side church.
While some theatergoers take a "why not" approach to religion, liberally borrowing from various traditions to form a custom-made faith, many others increasingly prefer "no thanks." Theatre 167 has room for all (believers and nonbelievers alike) in its latest theatrical casserole, The Church of Why Not, now playing at the West End Theater at the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew. As with many of Theatre 167's shows, you'll walk away with a fresh perspective and a renewed faith in the goodness of humanity.
Theatre 167 is most notable for its epic Jackson Heights Trilogy. Like that exploration of America's most diverse neighborhood, The Church of Why Not centers on a location (in this case, the progressive Methodist Church hosting the theater) and the wide range of characters occupying it.
While officially a Methodist congregation, St. Paul and St. Andrew hosts Jewish services, an Ethiopian Evangelical Church, and a primarily gay and lesbian Hispanic ministry called Iglesia Cristo Vivo. There's also a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen, and yes…even an off-off-Broadway theater. The show's authors — Camilo Almonacid, Jenny Lyn Bader, and J. Stephen Brantley — imagine some of the people you might encounter in this bustling and diverse sanctuary on a typical week. A large cast enacts multiple overlapping storylines, giving us a sense of the flavor of this unique community.
There's gay dad Christian (Marshall Spann), harried soup-kitchen coordinator Brenda (Erin Cherry), and helpful Jewish accountant Isaac (Jon Krupp). Under the direction of Ari Laura Kreith, the 19-person cast features many great performances. Elizabeth A. Bell is very funny as church lady Joyce, diligently working her way through Spanish Rosetta Stone in an effort to communicate with the Hispanic parishioners. Brandi Bravo brings an aching desperation to the role of recovering addict Bex, who seeks out Isaac's help in filing her taxes. (She's seven years behind.) Bravely stepping in last-minute to fill the vacant role of Adam, Debargo Sanyal keeps us laughing with his idiosyncratic diction and manners. When potential girlfriend Lily (Emma Orelove) invites him to volunteer making sandwiches at the soup kitchen, he demurs, "I would, if I weren't allergic. To gluten. And religion."
Playwright Brantley gives a gripping portrayal of Saul, a frequent guest at the soup kitchen who was a rocker in his younger days. "Back then we didn't call it homeless," he remarks. "We were just on tour." With a face covered in gray whiskers through which he delivers a terrifying hack of a cough, Brantley's performance feels real and urgent. (A man of many hats, Brantley also serves as the program's graphic designer.) And he even remains onstage playing his guitar through the intermission.
The play begins to sag in the second act, especially as dialogue gives way to monologue after monologue, many of which are addressed to God. The skeptical may feel a strong urge to tune out as the show sprawls to over two hours. There's a lack of focus that betrays one of the drawbacks to Theatre 167's strongly collaborative process, in which everyone gets a spotlight and the emphasis is more on slice-of-life than a hard-charging plot.
Luckily, they have a skilled director in Kreith and she's able to win our attention back by peppering the show with musical interludes (music direction by Ben Morss). Incredibly talented at such a young age, Nathaniel Gotbaum introduces us to his character (Bar Mitzvah boy Eli) by playing the opening sequence to Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." Trevor St. John-Gilbert lends his big voice to the role of struggling Missouri transplant Paul, wowing us in the opening moments with the spiritual "Working on a Building." People have varying thoughts about church, but everyone loves music.
While you might leave The Church of Why Not as a true believer in Theater 167, your feelings on religion will remain more dubious. Then again, the same is true for the myriad nonbelievers who pass through the church's doors every day. Conversion is not the point — service is. That ethos is crystal clear in this lovingly crafted portrait of an indispensible Upper West Side institution.