‘The Christians’ review: The consequences of conviction

A pastor’s well-meaning but sudden and strange change of faith leads to tragic consequences for his once-popular church and his family in Lucas Hnath’s provocative and potentially polarizing new drama “The Christians,” which is receiving its New York premiere Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons.

The set resembles a modern-day American megachurch and there is an electric organ and a full choir, which breaks out into four hymns.

Modeled as a sermon with scenes built around it, Paul (Andrew Garman) brings up to his congregation the story of a non-Christian boy who died saving his sister from a fire. Disturbed at the notion that the boy could not get into heaven just because he was not a Christian, Paul declares that going forward, their church will no longer believe in hell — which is easier said than done.

In subsequent conversations, his wife (Linda Powell), an associate pastor (Larry Powell), a board member (Philip Kerr) and a congregant (Emily Donahoe) all question the logic of and motives behind Paul’s declaration.

They make some good points. Why can’t he tolerate opposing opinions on this? If there’s no hell, does that mean Hitler is in heaven? Yes, according to Paul. So if everyone is getting into heaven, what’s the point of going to church?

Pretty soon, church attendance plummets, the associate pastor starts his own church and Paul’s wife leaves him.

Even if you do not have a theological background, “The Christians” is captivating as a modern-day tragedy. Les Waters’ production is first-rate. As portrayed by Garman, Paul is an enigmatic, sincere and somewhat selfish protagonist who is unprepared for the consequences of his decision and loses his credibility.

If you go: “The Christians” runs at Playwrights Horizons through Oct. 11. 416 W. 42nd St., PHnyc.org.