Review: Unbelievers spotlight religious leaders who lose their religion

It’s a pretty common story: you spend thousands of dollars and years of your life chasing your dream job only to find out it’s not really for you. Are you cutting your losses and starting over? Or, like Macbeth, do you choose to sink deeper into a life of lies? This is the choice faced by the people featured in Marin Gazzaniga. The incredulous, which is now making its world premiere with civilians at 59E59. These people are not doctors, athletes or actors – they are clergy. And their reassessment of their life purpose is also a consideration of the very existence of God.

The script is based on the 2013 book Taken to the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola (both of whom appear above the title as producers). Like many Civilians shows, The incredulous is told in the form of a documentary, with Linda (Nina Hellman) interviewing a series of individuals whose lines are taken from real-life subjects.

There’s Adam (David Aron Baker), a minister in the Church of Christ who started reading arguments against religion in order to convert non-believers, but ended up convincing himself that God is a fiction. Sherm (Richard Topol) is an Orthodox rabbi who has found more satisfaction in scientific evidence than in the Talmud. And award-winning Imam Mohamed (Joshua David Robinson) struggled to reconcile the notion of an almighty Allah whose will leaves the door open to satanic temptation.

David Aron Baker as Adam in Marin Gazzaniga The incredulousdirected by Steve Cosson, at 59E59.
(©Richard Termine)

Linda interviews a deceased nun (Sonnie Brown), a Mormon bishop (Dan Domingues), and even a Pentecostal pastor who speaks in tongues (Jeff Biehl casting one of the show’s most hair-raising moments). Leaving religion is not just a matter of letting go of superstition for these people. This often means estrangement from family and friends, even exile. This is not a comfortable position for someone considered a pillar of a faith community.

Steve Cosson directs the production with simple efficiency: scenes flow naturally from one to the next, with characters often staying behind to react to statements from other subjects, facilitating drama and interaction in a story that, otherwise, would only be between the interviewer and the interviewee. This culminates in the dramatization of a secret online message board, which is visualized here as a support group. When the actors leave and enter, it is through elegant choreography (movement by Sean Donovan).

The decor by Andrew Boyce and Se Hyun Oh evokes the nondescript hotel rooms in which the interviews would have taken place (a change in tone is signaled by the creak of the vertical blinds, the natural light of Lucrecia Briceno pouring in from the top of the stage). Emily Rebholz and Miriam Kelleher’s costumes give us a sense of character (the floral-print shirt and roomy cardigan Brown wears is an added nanny). Christian Frederickson underlines much of the piece with tense piano music, giving The incredulous the feel of a true crime podcast that investigates apostasy and is all on the side of the accused.

Sonnie Brown plays a lapsed nun in Marin Gazzaniga The incredulousdirected by Steve Cosson, at 59E59.
(© © 2022 Richard Termine)

The actors, half of whom do double roles, give us strong first impressions of their characters so they’re easily recognizable (Brown is a master of finely nuanced dialect work). Topol gives an appropriately infuriating performance as an Episcopal priest who wants to challenge the study’s findings, but whose liberal theology is about as squishy as Jell-O. Perhaps that is why his faith remains as those from more fragile traditions have felt the need to take a break. It’s thrilling, but at 65 minutes it feels like we’ve only watched the first episode.

The unsatisfying end of The incredulous sounds like an AA meeting, suggesting that when people change their minds, they often trade one set of tribal rituals for another. It feels like the real drama unfolds after the events of the play, especially in a country where politics is increasingly filling the void left by organized religion.

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Robert M. Larson