by Ed Malin · March 13, 2015
Trevor St. John-Gilbert, J.Stephen Brantley | Joel Weber
There's a phenomenon on the rise in New York: a church or other traditional space that, due to true love of humanity or economic necessity, hosts everything from a spectrum of religious congregations, to Alcoholics Anonymous, school tutoring, tax preparation, pilates, arts and just about everything else that brings people together in a non-judgmental way for the greater good. Look up "catholic" in the dictionary and you'll get the idea. Theater 167, consummate chronicler of multicultural intersections in their Jackson Heights trilogy, etc., has had the good fortune to work with and be inspired by the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on West 86th Street and the people who go there (that is, everybody). The result is the play The Church of Why Not by Camilo Almonacid, Jenny Lyn Bader and J. Stephen Brantley, conceived and directed by Ari Laura Kreith.
The action starts with a non-church person, Adam (Daniel K. Isaac) meeting Lily (Emma Orelove) in front of the church for what he thinks is a date. Instead of going out for breakfast, they volunteer to make sandwiches for the needy. Once we're inside the church we meet more and more people who never thought they'd be welcome there, let alone involved. Christian (Marshall Spann) is a gay man holding an adopted baby and looking for a Spanish conversation group for his other adopted son, Diego (Virginia Franks). Bex (Brandi Bravo) is the hard-working single mother of Valkyrie (Elodie Morss). They've come for help fitting Bex's dozens of jobs onto a tax return. Isaac (Jon Krupp), a not-so-Jewish accountant, ends up helping Bex as well as Eli (Nathaniel Gotbaum), a youth just about to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah with B'nai Jeshurun, a synagogue which shares the space. Eli is being raised by Brenda (Erin Cherry) and her partner Cheryl (Heather Lee Rogers) who adopted him from a now-deceased Jewish friend. Isaac, Brenda and Cheryl agree to help Eli figure out what it means to "become a man" and a "son of the commandments". Meanwhile, the well-meaning Joyce (Elizabeth A. Bell) doesn’t understand that Claudia (Lisann Valentin) is looking for tutoring for her son. With some help, Christian and Claudia become English and Spanish conversation buddies. Pilar (Millie Torchetti) and Mariana (Mariana Cardenas) join in on a hot topic: Christian’s resemblance to Walter in Volviéndose Malo/Breaking Bad. Thomas (Azhar Khan) is there to lead Alcoholics Anonymous and other addiction groups. Nathan the mixologist (Nick Fehlinger) is having a crisis of belief in everything. Raymond (Derick Sherrier) gets some good advice from Thomas on why getting high might hurt his career ambitions. Paul (Trevor St.-John Gilbert) is an aspiring musician new to the neighborhood, not what a disadvantaged person is “supposed” to look like. At the food pantry, Paul meets Saul (J. Stephen Brantley), a real guitarist and roadie who is down on his luck. Saul gives Paul life lessons while Paul tries to shore up Saul’s failing health.
As may be expected, the diverse group of characters cross paths in meaningful ways. The cast’s very talented younger actors play together and give each other guitar lessons. A song such as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” will pass from homeless Saul to Bar Mitzvah boy Eli and set the tone for the next scene. Young Valkyrie, her mother tells us, has a habit of falling asleep on men’s chests. The church, too, seems to be there when people need it. By the end, Adam is still trying to date Lily but they haven’t run out of activities to pursue at the church. The possibilities are endless, perhaps because “talent and latent are anagrams”.
In conclusion, this art brings out the best in reality. The situation and characters really are familiar and heartwarming. All the performers have worked hard to make art in the beautiful upstairs theater at the church, which feels a bit like a chapel. J. Stephen Brantley’s portrayal of a homeless man who can tell you dozens of great music stories but doesn’t qualify for medical assistance will surely broaden your horizons. Even if you think you don't like church, this production will show you why it's more important than ever.