Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

The Unbelieving

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 27, 2022

David Aaron Baker, Joshua David Robinson, Jeff Biehl,
Dan Domingues, and Sonnie Brown

Photo by Richard Termine
The Civilians' production of Marin Gazzaniga's The Unbelieving, opening tonight at 59E59 Theaters, is a paradigm of the company's signature form of "investigative theater." In the 65-minute documentary play, the term "unbelieving" becomes less of a noun and more of an action verb as it recounts the true story of members of the clergy who have stopped believing in God and are at a loss as to how to deal with it. Do they go on preaching in support of their congregants, and would that be sacrilegious in and of itself? Do they resign and walk away, risking becoming pariahs to their former friends, family and colleagues?

As a company, The Civilians engages deeply in using interview techniques and other forms of field research as the basis for its work. Its Artistic Director Steve Cosson's interviews with kidnapping victim Dana Higginbotham, to cite one prime example, served as the basis for Lucas Hnath's harrowing play Dana H. In the case of The Unbelieving, the production was adapted by Gazzaniga from interviews conducted for a 2013 book by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola, titled "Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind." Gazzaniga also conducted interviews in 2016 and 2020-22.

One thing that struck me while watching the performance was the frequent references to terminology that is typically applied to gay men and women who are just coming to grips with understanding their sexual orientation and who have not yet spoken to anyone. Words like "coming out," "being outed," and "closeted" pop up with enough frequency to help us understand that most of us make compromises between who we actually are and the face we show to the world. Generally, we accept the dichotomy. But for these members of the clergy, their new-found atheism is an existential crisis that shakes them to their very core. As Adam ("not his real name," a phrase the interviewer often repeats for our benefit), a Church of Christ minister, puts it: "In that point where I realized I was losing my faith yet still feared for my own salvation, I asked God to take my life."

The subject matter of The Unbelieving, which is being directed by Steve Cosson, is a fascinating one, something that few in the audience would already know much about. But do note, what we see during the hour-long production is pretty bare-bones, mostly excerpts of the interviews themselves. Linda (Nina Hellman), the interviewer, meets with nine different clergy members from various faiths, performed by six actors (David Aaron Baker, Jeff Biehl, Sonnie Brown, Dan Domingues, Joshua David Robinson, Richard Topol), with some of them doubling roles. The cast is uniformly strong, but even as a documentary play, The Unbelieving could use more of a dramatic structure than what we see here.

The Unbelieving
Through November 19, 2022
The Civilians
59E59, Theater B, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: