Nobody who was involved or watching remembers the mortgage crisis with anything approaching delight or humor. It was a sad and bitter time, another deeply dark spot on the tapestry of the financial industry and a time we’d all like to forget.
But it is a hallmark of rugged individuals that they can find something to believe in even during the most daunting crisis and that comes clear in "Storefront Church," the John Patrick Shanley play that opened at Windfall Theatre Friday night and runs through May 17.
Shanley, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "Doubt," takes on the whole financial mess and mixes it with an examination of personal ethics, politics, faith and religion. Then, he tosses in some of his funniest writing ever. Luckily, Windfall does justice to a work that has tremendous ambition.
The story starts in a bank office where Ethan Goldklang (Howard Goldstein) has come to plead with loan officer Reed Van Druyten (Jason Will). The bank is about to foreclose on the home owned by Goldklang’s wife just because she is four months overdue in her payments. When Van Druyten says there is nothing he can do, Goldklang starts the moralizing blitz that is to follow.
"Court convenes in a man’s soul, and nothing can stop it," Ethan shouts. "You will pay a price for this in the court of human truth, mister. You will wake up in pain for the things you do!"
Ethan’s wife Jessie Cortez (Ericka Wade) goes to the Bronx borough president Donaldo Calderon (Shayne Seliga) for help. Calderon is involved with the bank on a development deal for the Bronx and is reluctant to get involved until he finds out his mother had co-signed the note. He pushes his ethics aside and heads to the bank to meet with the CEO Tom Reidenberg (Ben George).
Reidenberg forgives the entire loan, knowing he will curry favor with Donaldo for a $300 million mall to be built in the Bronx.
It all comes together in the storefront church run by Chester Kimmich (Bill Jackson). The Pentecostal minister has had a crisis of faith on his own, unable to hold services or even pray because of the "big black hole in my path, stopping me."
Jackson is a deep and brooding figure on stage. When he looks at Donaldo and says "the devil always looks like somebody else," it’s clear that Shanley sees devils all over the place and he’s going to expose them, one by one by one.
Under the direction of Carol Zippel, the cast, although uneven, carries the story along with ease. There are times when the play seems to lose a little fine focus as it rumbles from big issue to big issue. But for all that, it’s a fairly easy play to watch.
Most of the humor belongs to Goldklang, the "secular Jew" who uses barbed wit to knock all the wealthy, the troubled and the the greedy off their mighty perches.
Goldstein is made for this role of an acerbic old Jew who has had a heart attack but can’t lay off the chocolate cake since he’s got a life insurance policy that would get his wife out of trouble.
At one moment, he learns that his doctor has died in his sleep.
"He kept telling me I was going to die," he says. "And then he dies. You know what I call that? I call that justice." His middle finger rises to the sky.
The other memorable humor comes from Will, who plays a loan officer who once lived the high life, until his wife found out he was messing around with a Russian supermodel. His wife shot him in the face, and the right side of his face is scarred and paralyzed, but no more so than his soul. Will’s character is the flawed and poignant, moving from severe pathos to deadpan humor.
By the time all the characters gather in the church at the end of the play, the amusement comes from Will, who admits he’s never been in church before because his parents didn’t believe in religion. As he gazes about this unfamiliar territory he mumbles, almost to himself, "I’m glad my dad is dead. He wouldn’t understand this."
Will, Jackson and Goldstein carry this play with unique and careful work. The same cannot be said of the rest of the cast.
The most egregious offender to the senses is Steliga, who is the borough president. Forget the fact that he looks about 20 years old and absolute nothing like a borough president in the Bronx might look and act.
For some inexplicable reason, he latched onto the decision that by shouting he will be able to show a wide range of emotions. For some time in the first act, I wondered if he thought he was in a 1,000 seat venue, instead of the intimate setting at the Village Church. There was virtually nothing convincing about his performance which demanded that the audience suspend all logic to get on board his train.
But even with those mild distractions, the production is a great finale to Windfall’s 21st season.
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