Lucas Hnath grew up in an evangelical church. His mother became a minister, and he thought he might do the same. Instead, he became a playwright, and now he’s written a knowing script about congregational tremors set off by a doctrinal dispute inside a megachurch.
But what does the author of “The Christians” believe himself? That, he’s not going to tell you.
“It’s funny — there’s a production in the U.K. right now, and almost immediately after it opened, somebody tweeted, ‘I want to know about the playwright’s relationship to Christianity,’ ” he said. “How long did it take for that to happen? Almost immediately, as if answering that question answers a question about the play. I would prefer not to give people that excuse.”
Playwrights Horizons, which is presenting the New York premiere of “The Christians,” is inviting audiences to respond to the play — which offers the kind of serious look inside contemporary American Christianity that is infrequently seen on the New York stage — by sharing their own stories.
On a chalkboard in the lobby, theatergoers are invited to answer the questions, “What faith did you grow up with?” and “Have your beliefs changed?” On poster board, they are asked to use colored Post-it strips to answer “Do you believe in a higher power?” and “How often do you attend a house of worship?” And the theater is encouraging audiences to discuss the show on social media with the exhortation “Share your beliefs.”
But Mr. Hnath (pronounced nayth) is not going there himself. He has written an essay for the theater’s website, and the show’s program, explaining that he is choosing not to discuss his own beliefs or practices, believing that audiences need to decide for themselves how to respond to a play that depicts a typical American megachurch fractured by a dispute over salvation and damnation. Mr. Hnath, 36, is happy to talk about his upbringing — he went to Christian elementary and middle schools, helped out with youth ministry, tagged along with his mother to seminary classes — but his religious life after high school is off limits, leaving it up to theatergoers to ponder whether “The Christians” is fundamentally sympathetic to, or critical of, the kind of community it depicts.
“A lot of people say the best way to go in and pitch a TV show is to tell a little story about your personal life that tells how you got to the story, and I remember hearing that and going: ‘Oh, come on! That has nothing to do with whether the idea is going to be a good idea,’ ” Mr. Hnath said.
“I always have this fear, the people are not going to actually engage with the thing, which is much harder — it takes a lot more time, and it takes a lot more thinking on your own.”
His play, set on the stage of a megachurch and produced with a full choir, is attracting quite a bit of interest from presenters: It began at the Humana Festival of New American Plays (where Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called it “the finest of the bunch” and Mr. Hnath “one of the brightest new voices of his generation”) and has already been staged at theaters in Austin, Tex., and Columbus, Ohio, in addition to the Playwrights Horizons mounting, which is in previews and officially opens on Sept. 17.
A London production starts on Tuesday at the Gate Theater, and others are scheduled at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and at Hope College in Michigan.
Mr. Hnath, a prolific writer whose previous works, “Isaac’s Eye” and “A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney,” were well received in New York, actually has two plays having Off Broadway premieres this season; “Red Speedo,” about doping in sports, will begin performances in February at New York Theater Workshop.
He is soft-spoken and quirky, with an oft-furrowed brow and luxuriant graying hair that he nervously fingers; he once played Seymour, the nebbishy botanist, in a high school production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” He loves magic (“I used to do Gospel lessons with magic tricks — I did a candle-through-the-arm routine illustrating something about the armor of God. Theologically they were not sound sermons”); dislikes cars (“Many times I failed the driver’s-license test — I’m just too conscious of how heavy the machinery is, and how fast it’s moving, and how many other heavy pieces of machinery are also moving down the road with me”); and rarely sees Broadway plays (“I’m so cheap. I want somebody to get me comps.”)
He once wanted to be a preacher, but he was also friendly with a number of preachers’ kids and realized how often other people go to them for advice. “What if you tell them the wrong thing?” he explained. “That seemed horrible.”
He came to New York intending to go to medical school but couldn’t stop writing; during his last semester of college, he took a job answering phones at Playwrights Horizons, which is now producing his play.
Mr. Hnath said he had long wanted to write about a rift in a large church, but he actually turned to the project somewhat unexpectedly.
He had been working on a rap musical titled “Kanye West Performs the Rise and Fall of George W. Bush” when a copyright case against an Off Broadway comedy, “3C,” caused him to worry about his legal footing. He had a commission to produce a play for the Humana Festival, and, noting its location in a religious corner of the country, decided that was the time to turn to “The Christians.”
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