Jessie Cortez (Tonya Pinkins) owns a house in the Bronx. She has rented its ground floor to the Reverend Chester Kimmich (Ron Cephas Jones), to open a church, and taken a second mortgage to help him renovate the space. But the reverend is facing a spiritual crisis and cannot preach. No services means no collection means no rent, and Jessie is facing foreclosure. The loan officer (an amazingly good Zach Grenier) with problems of his own won’t or more likely can’t help, and her hondling husband Ethan (Bob Dishy) is hoping for death and its attendant life-insurance payout. Jessie turns for help to a boy from the neighborhood who’s made good, Donaldo Calderon (Gioncarlo Esposito), now the borough president. Calderon, as it turns out, is at work on a major development project—an abandoned building set to become a mall—with the bank’s CEO, Tom Raidenberg (Jordan Lage). Ultimately, Raidenberg makes Jessie’s problem go away, and her loan is forgiven; in the process, he also ensures that Calderon will have no choice but to support his project.
If there’s a flaw, it’s that it’s never clear why the mall project shifts from being a good thing to a bad thing, why Calderon has to be bribed into backing it. But, even so, Mr. Shanley paints a subtle picture of the way banks always get what they want, how even the politicians who mean to stand up to them inevitably cannot. And there are some truly gorgeous touches: the loan officer’s attempts to explain that he cannot personally make any decisions, that banks are in fact not people, friend; Raidenberg gleefully devouring a gingerbread house while discussing foreclosures; Ms. Pinkins’ stubborn insistence on seeing the good; Mr. Jones’s dark night of the soul; watching Mr. Grenier’s depressed, repressed, disfigured loan officer finally, with a push from the reverend, coming out of his shell.
Ultimately, Mr. Shanley offers no prescription here, and not really that much hope. The world is the way the world now is, more usable but less charming. Storefront Church reminds us that even as we acknowledge this, we needn’t accept it. It’s good to have doubt.
Kenneth Lonergan is the successful screenwriter and movie director who made You Can Count on Me, among other films. He has also been known to be an excellent playwright, pleasing critics and crowds at the turn of the millennium with This Is Our Youth, Waverly Gallery and Lobby Hero. In his last play, 2009’s The Starry Messenger, he took on the task of directing his own script, and he seemed overwhelmed by it: What should have been a slim, sweet story of unhappy people searching for connection was instead an overstuffed, three-hour slog that made its audience into unhappy people searching for exits.
Now the Signature Theatre is presenting his latest work, Medieval Play, with Mr. Lonergan once again both writing and directing. And this time his play manages to be both meanderingly interminable and vacuously empty.
The conceit, I’ll grant, is moderately amusing: a medieval knight with a midlife crisis. (Was there existential angst before the Enlightenment?) “I said, you’re not going to rape any nuns while I’m around,” Sir Ralph (Josh Hamilton) tells his knightly colleagues, after his epiphany. But, of course, he cannot help himself, and, together with Sir Alfred (Tate Donovan) and others, he spends the rest of the show raping and pillaging. There are fine jokes, and amusing performances (notably John Pankow in a variety of preening roles), but the whole thing goes nowhere, nor does it seem to want to go anywhere.
Medieval Play is essentially a Fringe Festival show, a self-impressed lark with laughs derived only from its own silly knowingness. “By God, things certainly are grim here in Medieval France,” a deadpan Ralph says at the top of the show. “I certainly wish our civilization would outgrow this particular phase in its political development.” Things are grim at the Signature, too.