Church & State
A U.S. Senator has a crisis of faith following a school shooting in this new comedy.
We leave the lobby at New World Stages and enter into what looks like a campaign event. Furniture is arranged onstage in a manner suggesting a talk show (cable access set by David Goldstein). A lectern awkwardly hides near a refreshment table. Red, white, and blue bunting encircles the audience, with signs advertising "Whitmore for Senate." This waspy politician's name (a compound of "white more" that has already been claimed by Bill Pullman's character in Independence Day) is just the first of many choices that feel stale and derivative in Church & State, Jason Odell Williams' facile exploration of America's unhealthy relationship with God and guns.
One wouldn't expect to draw much humor from a play premised on the aftermath of a school shooting, but that seems to be what Williams is going for with this onstage sitcom. It tells the story of Senator Charles Whitmore (Rob Nagle), a "compassionate conservative" (has anyone actually used that label since George W. Bush?) running for reelection in North Carolina, where a deadly mass shooting has just taken place at an elementary school. A bombshell story is about to drop after the Senator commits a gaffe (in politics, that's telling the truth) in front of an intrepid blogger (Jonathan Louis Dent). When asked if he turned to prayer over the slain children, he admits that he did not. He goes further by wondering aloud what kind of God would allow such tragedies to happen over and over again.
This crisis of faith disturbs his wife, Sara (Nadia Bowers), who thought she married a godly man. Worse, it horrifies his campaign manager, Alex (Christa Scott-Reed), who worries that the news will alienate his evangelical base. But maybe the senator can pull off the impossible by going off script and speaking from the heart to his constituents.
We wish some of the actors would go off-script after hearing the first several of Williams' groan-inducing jokes, most of which hinge on his characters misunderstanding words: Sara refers to a "sticker tape parade" and when Alex paraphrases Hamlet by claiming that the senator will be hoisted with his own petard, Sara questions whether that word is politically correct. Richard Brinsley Sheridan it's not.
As you might have guessed, Sara is mostly a source of cheap laughs: She speaks with a thick Southern accent, drinks bourbon from a Big Gulp cup, and wears an itchy pink blazer that looks like it was purchased from the Dolores Umbridge collection at Neiman Marcus (archetypal costumes by Dianne K. Graebner).
Bowers gives a performance commensurate with the script, mugging and shouting her way through what feels like an endless 75 minutes. She really can't do much more with this material: "Mama needs a coke and some pretzel bites," she drunkenly hollers upon exiting the stage in what is surely meant to be one of the biggest laugh-lines of the night. Eliciting a few mild titters, it succeeds.
The foil to this brassy Southern clown is Alex, whom we are repeatedly told is a Jewish New York liberal (appropriately, Scott-Reed's two modes are "nervous" and "sarcastic"). It makes us wonder exactly what attracted her to the conservative Senator. Is her work merely mercenary, or is she hoping to change him? That question is never answered, leaving a plot hole big enough to drive a Silverado through.
Nagle is just fine as the senator, affecting a drawl reminiscent of Kevin Spacey's in House of Cards. Unfortunately, Senator Whitmore is neither as well-spoken nor as dramatically compelling as Frank Underwood. He is given the thankless task of wrapping the whole thing up with an imitation Aaron Sorkin monologue that goes down about as well as imitation beer.
Director Markus Potter stages a zippy production that hits all the requisite comic beats, but that can only do so much to compensate for lousy source material. Church & State offers an immersion in its chosen subjects of faith and firearms that is about as deep as a child's wading pool. Credulous liberals may applaud this flimsy conversion tale as a model for conservative politicians, but they certainly won't walk away with any new revelations about why those politicians think the way they do. In a country this divided, Church & State is nothing more than a sermon to the choir.