January 19, 2012 at 11:11 am EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Crisis of faith

‘The Religion Thing’
Through Jan. 29
Theater J
1529 16th Street, NW

From left are Chris Stezin, Liz Mamana, Kimberly Gilbert and Will Gartshore in ‘The Religion Thing.’ (Photo by C. Stanley Photography; courtesy Theater J)


They say couples who share the same faith stay together longer. In her new comedy “The Religion Thing,” now at Theater J, playwright Renee Calarco tests the theory.

The action kicks off with a giddy get together. D.C. attorney Mo (Liz Mamana) and her lobbyist husband Brian (nicely underplayed by Chris Stezin) have invited longtime pal Patti (Kimberly Gilbert) and her new boyfriend Jeff (Will Gartshore) for drinks. By all indications it’s a total love fest. Every line of dialogue is punctuated by a peck, smooch or squeeze. The couples are cooing. The ladies are hugging. Even Jeff is cutely pinching Brian’s cheek. Mercifully, this sugary madness soon comes to an end.

When former bad girl Patti (now a recovering alcoholic and hotshot partner at a D.C. firm) informs her hosts that she met Jeff at an evangelical mega church and is now a born-again Christian, a slight chill of disbelief momentarily cools the party; but it’s when Jeff — in quick reference to his gay boss — asserts that homosexuality is a choice and not predetermined, that the evening really takes a turn. Mo angrily disagrees, but Jeff remains certain because, as he explains (spoiler alert), he himself is a successful graduate of the “ex-gay” movement.

In the ensuing scenes, Mo learns a lot about Patti including her plans to reinvent herself as a stay-at-home mom. This tidbit of info particularly resonates with Mo who is eager to start a family in spite of her husband’s misgivings about their religious differences — she’s a lapsed Catholic and he’s a non-observant Jew.

“The Religion Thing” is an uneven comedy whose quieter, more serious scenes are its best. Calarco gives each of her four successful Washingtonians teetering on the precipice of middle age a moment to express their feelings about religion and the role it plays in their lives. As Mo, Mamana poignantly expresses her character’s longing to return to her youth — a time when it was easier to fully believe in the ineffable mysteries and sacred rites of the Catholic Mass.

For sure, director Joe Calarco (the playwright’s gay brother) has assembled an excellent cast from whom he draws solid, dynamic performances, though they might benefit from some reining-in (a bit of shouting, grimacing and stomping around goes a long way).

As Jeff — the ex-gay who dismisses his sexual experiences with men as somehow invalid — Gartshore could easily come off as a cookie cutter creep, but because of the gay actor’s wonderfully layered portrayal — and the playwright’s exposition — Jeff is a sympathetic, if not wholly lovable, character. Similarly, the talented Gilbert brings dimension to unpredictable Patti.

Versatile actor Joseph Thornhill plays various men who represent things the characters’ once had and may still want. For Mo, Patti and Jeff, he visits as a ghost from sex and good times past, but as Brian’s grandfather, he is a reminder of Jewish tradition.

Gay designer James Kronzer’s serviceable revolving set (cleverly lit by Cory Ryan Frank) allows the action to smoothly move from comedy club to living room to office to bedroom. Frank Labovitz costumes the cast in appropriate D.C. business and casual attire.

“The Religion Thing” is the anchor production in Theater J’s new festival “Locally Grown: Community Supported Art From Our Own Gardens,” celebrating D.C. area’s playwright community. Despite its flaws, the show makes for a respectable start to what looks like an exciting new project.

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