John Patrick Shanley completes his “Church and State” trilogy with his terrific new play, Storefront Church, receiving its world premiere at Atlantic Theater Company‘s newly renovated Linda Gross Theater. The three works — which also include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt and the military-set Defiance — stand on their own, unified not by plot or characters, but by a probing of moral and ethical complexities.
Storefront Church centers on Bronx Borough President Donaldo Calderon (Giancarlo Esposito), who finds himself drawn into a conflict wherein the bank is about to foreclose on the home of family friend, Jessie Cortez (Tonya Pinkins) for missed payments. Jessie is in trouble because she took out a second mortgage in order to help a preacher by the name of Chester Kimmich (Ron Cephas Jones) renovate an old Laundromat into a storefront church, but who then never held services, built a congregation, or paid rent.
Donaldo pays a visit to Chester, and the two get into an argument involving responsibility and helping others. Their respective positions are more complicated than they initially appear, and each man seems to push the other’s buttons so that the scene escalates into a near physical brawl.
The second act introduces further complications, as the conflict of interest that Donaldo feared would occur by intervening on Jessie’s behalf becomes a concrete reality. His meeting with bank CEO Tom Raidenberg (Jordan Lage) leads to an ethical conundrum, as Donaldo’s own mother co-signed the loan for Chester’s renovations, and Tom sees the situation as an opportunity to get Donaldo firmly in his corner.
What makes the play so fascinating is that the solution Tom proposes seemingly benefits a lot of people — including Jessie. But does that make it right, or is it simply a Faustian political deal that may have further repercussions later on down the line?
Shanley, who also directed, does seem to have a point of view in that regard, but he presents the case in a manner that is not so clear-cut. He also mixes in a heavy dose of humor into both writing and directorial choices that helps the production remain thoroughly engaging.
Esposito infuses a mixture of charisma and doubt into his portrayal that makes Donaldo’s dilemma a fascinating one to watch. Interestingly, Jones’ depiction of Chester makes use of those same characteristics, but forges them into a wholly different kind of character, but one that still serves as a foil to Donaldo.
Pinkins plays her role a bit broadly, as does Bob Dishy as her husband Ethan Goldklang, but it does seem like Shanley intended their roles to be more comic than dramatic. Lage is simultaneously predatory and charming, particularly in a symbol-heavy scene involving a gingerbread house. And the play’s best work comes from Zach Grenier as loan officer Reed Van Druyten, who is hilarious in a role that requires a very quirky kind of understatement.