John Patrick Shanley has written a lot of plays. He’s best known for 2004’s Doubt, a Parable, which won him a Pulitzer, Tony, Obie, Drama Desk, and a bunch of other awards, but he’s been cranking out plays since the early 1980s. He’s also the screenwriter of such films as Moonstruck, Congo and Joe vs. the Volcano, and I will defend the latter as easily his greatest work. I start with this list of his credentials because when I saw his latest play, Storefront Church at San Francisco Playhouse, my take-away was that this guy isn’t really a playwright.
Storefront Church is one of Shanley’s “issue plays,” like Doubt (sexual molestation in the Catholic Church) and Defiance (affirmative action controversies). This one’s basically about predatory loans and bank foreclosures. There’s some other stuff about crises of faith, but that part feels like hokum. That’s because the characters aren’t really characters so much as types—or, really, positions—which makes it impossible to take their crises seriously. Ultimately it feels not so much like a play as a platonic dialogue, but one in which the ideas are only roughly sketched out and not so much discussed as tossed into the mix and then abandoned so everybody can sing church songs together.
There’s the young borough president (Gabriel Marin) who’s every inch a budding politician hungry to make good, too eager to take the side of big business but afraid of letting his neighbors down. There’s the neighbor he’s letting down (Gloria Weinstock), a friend of his mother’s, a good-hearted but thick-headed Latina who doesn’t understand why the bank is foreclosing on her building and can’t bring herself to ask her tenant for the money he owes her. There’s her husband, a good-humored but easily agitated old Jewish man in dangerously poor health (a charming Ray Reinhardt). There’s the tenant, a preacher who’s lost his sense of direction and can’t pray anymore, who says he has faith but hates life, in a sensitive portrayal by Carl Lumbly. (Lumbly, by the way, has been turning in terrific performances all year, in SF Playhouse’s The Motherfucker with the Hat, Center REP’s Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World and Magic Theatre’s Terminus, costarring with Marin in most of them.) There’s the cold-hearted, by-the-book bank loan officer with a half-paralyzed face, an introverted man who’s given up on life and feels dead inside, achingly embodied by Rod Gnapp. And finally there’s the breezy, chummy wheeler-dealer bank president (an amusingly appalling Derek Fischer).
Jessie, the foreclosed-upon landlady, took out a second mortgage on her building to lend money to the preacher to convert an old laundromat to a church, but the money didn’t go far and the church still hasn’t opened. The preacher just sits there all day, quietly contemplating why he can’t bring himself to move forward, having lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. Donaldo, the borough president, keeps telling people to just get off their butts and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. He thinks it’s Jessie’s own fault that she can’t pay her debts, and thinks the preacher’s just a do-nothing huckster taking advantage of her. He and the bank president are working on a lucrative deal to build a mall in the Bronx, though privately he questions whether that’s really what the neighborhood needs. And it all takes place over the holiday season, with that standard bittersweet Christmas-story narrative of cold hearts breaking open.
There’s a lot of debate about whose fault it is if people can’t pay their debts to the bank, and most of the characters are far too thick-headed to see more than one very narrow side of the picture. Donaldo has little sympathy for his drowning neighbors, because they’re the ones irresponsible enough to borrow money they can’t pay back. Jessie, portrayed as the dimmest bulb of the lot, can’t get past very simple reactions to her present predicament: the bank’s just out to get her, the preacher is a great man and she can’t bother him with her problems, and oh, maybe the bank’s nice after all if it forgives her loan. I guess she’s supposed to make up in heart what she lacks in brains, but none of these characters are believable enough as characters for that to happen. When the loan officer finally speaks his truth, it’s equally obvious that this is what Shanley came here to say, and for most of us in the Bay Area it’s pretty much what we were thinking all along. But Banks Are Fuckers probably wouldn’t work as well as a title as Storefront Church does, so some beating around the bush is obligatory. After all, that’s what makes it a play rather than just a lecture. Or tries to, anyway.
I should say that SF Playhouse’s production is actually quite good. It’s well directed by Joy Carlin, and the performances are strong. Lumbly’s quietly tormented preacher and Reinhardt’s eccentric old Jewish gentleman are both awfully charismatic, as is Fischer’s bank prez in his own comically overbearing way, and Gnapp’s palpable discomfort as the loan officer gets under your skin. Artistic director Bill English’s terrific set puts a realistic storefront facade nearly at the edge of the stage, which opens up to reveal the various scenes unfolding within. At times the compelling acting and some clever lines manage to rope you into the dry debates about faith and fiscal responsibility, at least for a little while. But ultimately that’s not enough to make the faux redemption narrative feel anything but anything but fraudulent, and so transparently so that you may feel a little insulted that Shanley thinks you’d fall for it.
Show #135 of 2013, attended November 30.