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The Religion Thing, a new play that opened last week at Theater J, is a terrible choice of outing for a first JDate. Actually, it’s probably an unwise second or third JDate, too. Which is to say, The Religion Thing is an uncomfortably funny exploration of how religious differences complicate human connections, from football buddies on a couch to married partners in bed.
It’s a good play, but see it at your own relationship’s risk.
Penned by D.C. playwright Renee Calarco and directed by her brother Joe, the show is billed as the centerpiece of Theater J’s Locally Grown festival. (Artistic director Ari Roth introduced the show with a long, metaphor-heavy speech about theater and vegetable gardens.) The cast the Calarcos assembled is strong, and unites five actors who usually appear on different stages.
Will Gartshore, most often seen in Signature Theatre’s musicals, and Kimberly Gilbert, a Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company regular, play Jeff and Patti, newlyweds who met at a “Godly Living for Singles” mixer at a Northern Virginia megachurch. (The resemblance to McLean Bible’s franchise of Frontline gatherings is likely not a coincidence.)
Until a fateful night of merlot and manchego, Patti has kept her conversion a secret from her collegiate best friend Mo, a lapsed Catholic played by Liz Mamana. Patti’s surprise change of faith, her ensuing marriage to Jeff, and her fast-track to mommyhood force Mo and her Jewish husband Brian (Chris Stezin) to confront their own religious differences.
The reason they’ve been postponing having children, it turns out, is to postpone deciding whether they’ll raise them Jewish or Catholic. And things aren’t perfect for Jeff and Patti, either; it turns out he wasn’t entirely forthcoming about his pre-Evangelical sex life. The revelatory arguments occur during a series of incredibly well-written, well-directed scenes. At lunch, after the dinner party blow-up, Mo tells Patti she’s made a terrible mistake, marrying a guy she met at a church dance while she was high on Sudafed. Back at home, Brian tells Mo he’s more concerned by Patti’s sudden interest in monogamy, given that she was previously a member of the Fuck of the Month Club.
The stage (designed by James Kronzer) rotates from bedroom to office to living room and then back to the boudoir again. There’s a lot of sex, or rather various simulations thereof.
The bedroom scenes include the first of four Act 2 fantasy sequences that are a touch over-the-top. Brian dreams of his grandfather, in traditional orthodox dress, who says he regrets not coming to the wedding, but urges Brian to raise a Jewish son. The rest of the cast is visited by the ghosts of old flames, all played for laughs by Joseph Thornhill.
The scenes work if you accept them as replacement soliloquies—humorous vehicles for finding out what’s in these conflicted characters’ heads. Not shockingly, some reviews have criticized The Religion Thing for being too cutesy for its own good, and oversimplifying some very complicated human questions.
But I’d argue that for theatergoers—like me—whose families have found a way to blend their faiths for the sake of sanity, The Religion Thing offers a communal evening of comic relief. And so I endorsed the show to a skeptical cousin. “I don’t need to see that play; I’m living it,” she said. Then I told her about the scene (recounted in one fantasy sequence, with Mo wearing a negligee) where an ignorant Catholic wife accidentally sets a Menorah on fire during Passover. “Now that,” said my cousin, coming around, “that sounds pretty funny.”