I saw this the other night with a friend. As we were settling in, I remarked, sarcastically, about another production of an English play by an American company. My friend said, “Well, that’s what the literary manager likes and when he goes…” I found this more depressing than anything else. This particular company has imported a few English plays over the last few seasons, some more successful than others. I would hope that a programming decision like that would have something to do with the quality of the stories told or some deeper held conviction, not the vagaries of staffing. Apparently not. Anyway…
This play left me a bit cold and a bit befuddled. One thing I thought was a thought I had when I saw this play in Chicago: why not change the locale? Okay, fine, that means asking a playwright to make changes, but what makes this story particularly British? And, if it’s so British, why is it being produced in the U.S.? It may be a nativist thought, but if you’ve got a group of (mainly) affluent white urbanites talking about ideas, why not just change it from London to New York and let people use their own accents (or hire local actors)? Unless the British-ness is part of the selling point.
As for the play, it has its moving parts, and some very, very good performances. But, for my money, it plays with a stacked deck. Atheism almost always comes out on top in plays about religion. Inevitably, the atheists have the better arguments, the wittier lines, the snappy rejoinders and believers are presented as either stupid or terminally naïve. In most cases, the plays revolve around the atheist being forced to deal with some emotional truth, which is always hard for them, but eventually they come around. Believers are shown to be either saints or hypocrites. This play doesn’t deviate from that story much.
Personally, I’m a bit of an agnostic and I was raised by both fervent (and sometime hypocritical) believers and by passionate atheists. I think this is a vital conversation for our society to have and because it is a matter of ideas and beliefs, theatre is a perfect place to have it. But more often than not, we get plays that are meant to make one side feel better about itself. “Look,” plays like this say of atheists, “we have emotions! It’s hard for us, too!” This isn’t a conversation, it’s propaganda. Plays like this, in my opinion, contribute to the widening gaps in our culture.