John Patrick Shanley Goes Back to Bronx Roots for Storefront Church

By Harry Haun
June 2, 2012

Off-Broadway's Storefront Church joins Doubt and Defiance to complete Tony, Oscar and Pulitzer winner John Patrick Shanley's "Church and State" trilogy.



*

The maverick choir boy rides yet again in Storefront Church, the concluding chapter in what John Patrick Shanley calls his "Church and State Trilogy." Following Doubt (2004) and Defiance (2006), Church opens June 11 in what still looks like a church but is — even after an $8.3 million facelift — the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater.

At 61, Shanley is still a brooding natural product of his upbringing, which consists in equal measure of Roman Catholic schooling, Marine Corps training and Bronx street smarts. The combination makes him keen on confrontations, and in his best works, he likes to call out authority figures and test their mettle with moral issues.

Doubt, which won him a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony, a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination (for his screen adaptation), pits a merciless Mother Superior against a priest she suspects of pedophilia. In both mediums, the case was argued so even-handedly it produced equally divided "hung audiences." Now, Doubt will linger on as an opera, mystifying a new medium; with music by Douglas Cuomo and text by Shanley, it premieres in 2013 at the Minnesota Opera.

Defiance takes place on a Marine camp in the Carolinas where the crisis of conscience falls to a black officer who learns the base commander who promoted him because of race had a liaison with a private's wife.

Shanley has now capped his trilogy with Storefront Church (née Sleeping Demon), drawing a line in the sand between a Bronx borough president and a guy who starts a storefront church.

Cast members Ron Cephas Jones, Tonya Pinkins and Giancarlo Esposito
photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia

"It involves a mortgage crisis and — more directly, really — a spiritual crisis of which the borough president and the minister are two sides," the playwright relates, "and this, I think, will bring the play to the conclusion that I would have hoped for."

This play came to him while walking around the old neighborhood. "I kept seeing these storefront churches," he recalls. "I thought it's just such an interesting idea to take a candy store or a laundromat and say, 'Okay, this is going to be a church, and I'm going to name it whatever the heck I think a church should be named, and I'm going to preach whatever I think this church should espouse and hope to get some parishioners and make a go of it.'

"What an interesting thing! It's sorta the basic building block of religion. Rather than people who attend major faiths, this is the place — the primal soup — of organized religion. I thought the original impulse — the need for spirituality and community that this represents — was exactly the kind of thing that I wanted to talk about."

And, as is his wont, he'll do the talking himself. "I asked a few guys about directing it — Joe Mantello, among others — but they weren't free," he says. "Then, finally, at a certain point, I realized that I was probably the best guy for the job." Not that director Shanley is particularly easy on scripter Shanley. "When I'm directing my own thing, I kinda resent the writer — like, 'Why did he take so long to say that?'"

Jordan Lage and Bob Dishy
Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia

He has picked an impeccable cast of six to speak his Shanleyese: Giancarlo Esposito, Ron Cephas Jones, Tonya Pinkins, Bob Dishy, Zach Grenier and Jordan Lage.

Absolutely nothing about the meth dealer he plays on "Breaking Bad" qualifies Esposito for public office, but he got the nod for borough president anyway, and Jones is the minister with his mitts up. "Tonya," explains Shanley, "in the play, she owns a mixed-use building in the Bronx. She lives upstairs, and downstairs is her store where this guy has started a storefront church. She's a devout woman and has lent him money for a renovation, and that causes her to go into default on her mortgage."

Shanley, who wrote an Oscar role for the "Moonstruck" Cher, has spent the past several months writing one-act plays about the opposite sex. "It's sorta Women International. It's about different characters of women from different cultures." He has seven to date and no idea what the to do with them, but he'll press on. "I figured I'd write them all and see what I've done and then decide where they'll go."

On the trilogy front, he says he can see clearly now. "I think, with the third play, it all comes to a landing place. I feel a sense of resolution about it. I'm quite pleased with Storefront Church. What it says is very applicable to the time we're living in. There is a dearth of places for people who have a spiritual hunger to satisfy, and there's a dearth of places for people who have the hunger for community to satisfy. Where else is there a legitimate and safe place to satisfy those needs?"

(This feature appears in the June 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)