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Theater Review: “The Religion Thing” at Theater J

Faith might be a tricky topic, but it’s great dramatic fodder for Renee Calarco’s newest play.

Chris Stezin, Liz Mamana, Kimberly Gilbert, and Will Gartshore in The Religion Thing. Photograph by C. Stanley Photography.

☆☆☆ out of four

In Renee Calarco’s new play, The Religion Thing, currently running at Theater J, the local playwright strikes on an ironic truth: There’s nothing like an intimate evening with friends to fuel dramatic tension. So when Washington lawyer Mo (Liz Mamana) and her lobbyist husband, Brian (Chris Stezin), invite an old friend and her new husband over for cocktails and cheese straws in this world premiere production, it isn’t too hard to sense what’s coming. That said, Calarco’s seemingly simple premise belies the complex story she’s crafted. In this case, a simple drinks date takes a tense turn when Mo’s friend Patti (Kimberly Gilbert) reveals to her that she’s not only quit her high-power career to start a family with husband Jeff (Will Gartshore), but she’s also found God as a born-again Christian.

The incident has a resounding impact on both couples. Lapsed Catholic Mo, who longs to be a mother; her preoccupied Jewish husband, Brian; recovering alcoholic Patti; and the devout but tortured Jeff all struggle with existential questions of love, compromise, regret, and faith.

For a play that could get so tangled up in sweeping universal questions of modern humanity, the often laugh-out-loud action feels present and personal (sometimes uncomfortably so)—a testament to the five-person cast’s raw, authentic performances. Stezin and Gartshore are consistently funny and powerful, and although Gilbert and Mamana occasionally drift toward uneven, as their characters evolve and grow, so does our investment in them. Relationships are defined even as the actors are seated silently watching football or eating at a lunch counter—and using a fork for character exposition takes some serious talent. Rounding out the cast, a fluid, scene-stealing Joseph Thornhill, playing several roles, acts as a sort of ghost of Christmas (and Hanukkah) Past and Unhappiness Present for all four principals, illuminating their greatest fears and darkest secrets with humor and poignancy.

The anchor of the company’s six-part “Locally Grown: Community Supported Art From Our Own Garden” festival, Religion crackles with energy from the start, but the truth that shines through Calarco’s layered script, Joe Calarco’s (the playwright’s younger brother) direction, and the actors’ subtle but convincing chemistry is what makes this show work—and it works well. At times, the action (not to mention at least one graphic sex scene) seems so real that watching it feels intrusive. When a quiet get-together snowballs into an impassioned moral argument, the viewer experiences the same sense of panic as the characters.

For a production that trades on largely shared human experiences, like spiritual self-doubt and marital crossroads, and familiar references to its DC audience (even Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory comes up), Religion still manages to be fresh and surprising. The play is billed as a comedy, and though the second act veers sharply in the direction of drama, it’s the Calarcos’ ability to tease out both in a finely tuned balance that gives the material its depth. What the second act lacks in witty banter it makes up for with genuine emotional punch.

You may not leave the show feeling satisfied and happy (or at least the kind of satisfied and happy a “romantic comedy” usually inspires), but the loose ends left untied here fit with the overall spirit of truth that makes the play so thought-provoking. There’s a reason talking about religion is considered uncouth—volatile and deeply personal, the topic touches each of us in strange and silly ways we sometimes can’t explain. But as this smart production goes to show, we could all stand to exorcise our inner demons.

The Religion Thing is at Theater J through January 29. Tickets ($35 to $60) are available through the theater’s Web site. The play contains graphic language, sexuality, and adult themes.