In his Pulitzer-winning play Doubt, John Patrick Shanley proved that he could grapple with complicated moral questions in a compelling human-scale drama. His new play, Storefront Church, running through June 24 at the Atlantic Theater Company's just-renovated Linda Gross Theater, tackles some of the same church vs. state issues but in a more hamfisted way. (The play is the final work in a trilogy that included 2006's Defiance, which was set at a North Carolina Marine base in 1971.)
Storefront Church is a modern-day parable with a rainbow of characters showing just about every hue of religious expression. There's the simple, blindly believing Christian Jessie Cortez (a moving Tonya Pinkins), and her secular Jewish husband, Ethan (a wry Bob Dishy), who are about to lose their Bronx home after falling behind on a second mortgage. They appeal first to the bank's loan officer (Zach Grenier), an atheist who was left disfigured when his ex-wife shot him. Then Jessie turns to the neighborhood boy who made good, Donaldo Calderon (Giancarlo Esposito), a pastor's son who became disenchanted with organized religion and turned to politics, rising to become Bronx borough president. It is Donaldo who confronts the source of the couple's financial woes: a Pentecostal preacher named Chester Kimmich (Ron Cephas Jones), a supposedly dynamic figure who took the loan money to convert a laundry in the ground floor of their urban home into a storefront church. Rather implausibly, he's been sidelined by a crisis in faith that's kept him from holding a single service. ''I'm not talking about depression,'' the reverend tells Donaldo. ''I'm talking about a hole in the road before me, big, deep and getting bigger, and it's a test and a trial and I am bound up here with no way forward.''
There are weighty ideas at work in Storefront Church, particularly as Donaldo weighs how far he'll go to help out Jesse and Ethan (and his unseen mother, who co-signed the fateful loan that's fallen into arrears). Is he willing to sell his soul and strike a bargain with the bank that might also benefit him politically? It's heady stuff, but Shanley, who also directs the production, veers more toward the sententious than the sentimental. The characters feel like proxies rather than flesh-and-blood humans, and the situations in which Shanley places them too often strain credulity. By keeping his eye on the heavens, he's lost sight of the narrative craters on the ground in front of him. C+
(Tickets: atlantictheater.org or 212-279-4200)