Press for The Religion Thing and the Locally Grown Festival

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Washington Jewish Week

Plenty to talk about 'The Religion Thing' will spur discussions

1/11/2012 10:34:00 AM 

by Lisa Traiger
Arts Correspondent

A lapsed Catholic, an unaffiliated Jew and a pair of born-again Evangelical Christians mix it up in playwright Renee Calarco's brand-new work at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center's Theater J. No surprise that religion is the driving force bringing together one couple and tearing apart the other. What does surprise is how deftly much of the evening plays out, with laughs, serious pauses, fireworks - both sexual and anger-related - and, in the end, much food for thought on where religion stands in the lives of well-educated, comfortable Washingtonians in 2012.

The world-premiere of The Religion Thing inaugurates the theater's new "Locally Grown" festival, featuring new play readings celebrating D.C.- area playwrights, and runs through Jan. 29. It's an unflinching look at the lifestyle choices two highly successful Washington couples make. Calarco puts them through the wringer.

That's not to say that her characters are all sturm und drang. In fact, they're likeable, familiar even. One is cramming for next Tuesday's book club, another cheering the ignominious Redskins. Two, of course, are successful lawyers - is there any other kind in D.C.? The two couples - Mo and Brian, Jeff and Patti - talk about not talking about work, then answer weekend cell phone calls from bosses, compare real estate and general contractors, and constantly scope out better job opportunities. They're the yuppies of 2012. Witty, wealthy and, we soon see, each wretchedly unhappy either with their past choices or their current circumstances.  CONTINUE READING

Metro Weekly

Review: The Religion Thing
Renee Calarco's ''The Religion Thing'' is a very modern, very funny play that deserves the boost Theater J is giving it

by Doug Rule
Published on January 12, 2012, 4:49am | Comments

Theater J's The Religion Thing centers on two couples. But, as that bland title suggests, the show's primary focus is on faith. Is faith the cure-all for whatever ails you? Is it all just a matter of belief and control? Those are key questions to ponder in local playwright Renee Calarco's play, in which two former best friends, Mo (Liz Mamana) and Patti (Kimberly Gilbert), struggle to reconnect after Patti becomes born-again. Further complicating matters is the dawning realization that neither is in as rock solid of a marriage as each once believed.

The realizations are provoked after Mo and her husband Brian (Chris Stezin) invite Patti and her husband Jeff (Will Gartshore) over to their D.C. apartment one Saturday night. Except Patti didn't tell Mo and Brian that she and Jeff had already married. Or that they met at church. Those revelations provoke shock and laughter among the four. But it's not until later, in the course of conversation, when Jeff shares his past, that The Religion Thing, directed by Renee's brother, Joe Calarco, genuinely becomes an uproarious comedy for the audience.

There's a stunning twist to The Religion Thing, but it's better to keep it a surprise. CONTINUE READING 

Washington Post

Renee Calarco’s ‘Religion Thing’: Cutesyness drags down comedy about faith

By Peter Marks, Published: January 10

Renee Calarco is onto something when she suggests in her new play, “The Religion Thing,” that America’s biggest taboo isn’t talking about sex — or even, as plays such as “Clybourne Park” might have it, race. No, it’s talking about faith.

The uncomfortable silences that sometimes follow a public confession of devoutness are reproduced amusingly in this world-premiere comedy, which had its official opening Monday night in Theater J’s Goldman Theater. Now, if Calarco would only trust her premise and cut some of the clunkier conceits in this overreaching effort, she might see her way clear to a taut, provocative satire. In downshifting too often from sociological insight to ill-advised bursts of magic realism and other cutesyness, “The Religion Thing” squanders much of its comic momentum.

The play, directed by the dramatist’s brother, Joe Calarco, launches Theater J’s Locally Grown festival, an important new showcase for District playwrights. Over the next two months, the company will present readings of works by four other writers from the region, as well as several performances of “The Prostate Dialogues,” a new solo piece by Baltimore-based Jon Spelman.

A company of Theater J’s level of visibility diverting this much energy to the city’s dramatic voices is a milestone. On the heels of Arena Stage’s recruitment of District playwright Karen Zacarias as one of its resident writers, the Locally Grown festival is opening another channel for area dramatists seeking a route to more frequent and prominent productions. CONTINUE READING




Theater Review: “The Religion Thing” at Theater J

Faith might be a tricky topic, but it’s great dramatic fodder for Renee Calarco’s newest play.

By Gwendolyn Purdom

In Renee Calarco’s new play, The Religion Thing, currently running at Theater J, the local playwright strikes on an ironic truth: There’s nothing like an intimate evening with friends to fuel dramatic tension. So when Washington lawyer Mo (Liz Mamana) and her lobbyist husband, Brian (Chris Stezin), invite an old friend and her new husband over for cocktails and cheese straws in this world premiere production, it isn’t too hard to sense what’s coming. That said, Calarco’s seemingly simple premise belies the complex story she’s crafted. In this case, a simple drinks date takes a tense turn when Mo’s friend Patti (Kimberly Gilbert) reveals to her that she’s not only quit her high-power career to start a family with husband Jeff (Will Gartshore), but she’s also found God as a born-again Christian.

The incident has a resounding impact on both couples. Lapsed Catholic Mo, who longs to be a mother; her preoccupied Jewish husband, Brian; recovering alcoholic Patti; and the devout but tortured Jeff all struggle with existential questions of love, compromise, regret, and faith.

For a play that could get so tangled up in sweeping universal questions of modern humanity, the often laugh-out-loud action feels present and personal (sometimes uncomfortably so)—a testament to the five-person cast’s raw, authentic performances. Stezin and Gartshore are consistently funny and powerful, and although Gilbert and Mamana occasionally drift toward uneven, as their characters evolve and grow, so does our investment in them. Relationships are defined even as the actors are seated silently watching football or eating at a lunch counter—and using a fork for character exposition takes some serious talent. Rounding out the cast, a fluid, scene-stealing Joseph Thornhill, playing several roles, acts as a sort of ghost of Christmas (and Hanukkah) Past and Unhappiness Present for all four principals, illuminating their greatest fears and darkest secrets with humor and poignancy.

The anchor of the company’s six-part “Locally Grown: Community Supported Art From Our Own Garden” festival, Religion crackles with energy from the start, but the truth that shines through Calarco’s layered script, Joe Calarco’s (the playwright’s younger brother) direction, and the actors’ subtle but convincing chemistry is what makes this show work—and it works well. At times, the action (not to mention at least one graphic sex scene) seems so real that watching it feels intrusive. When a quiet get-together snowballs into an impassioned moral argument, the viewer experiences the same sense of panic as the characters. CONTINUE READING 




Washington Post

Washington playwrights struggle to be heard

By Mark Jenkins, Published: January 6

Theaters need actors and directors. They need stagehands, wardrobe supervisors and lighting technicians. And, of course, spectators.

But they do not need playwrights. Libraries are lousy with scripts, many conveniently free from copyright. These are called “classics” or “revivals,” although Harry Bagdasian, who ran the District’s New Playwrights Theatrefrom 1972 to 1984, has a more pungent term: “used plays.”

Writing for the stage is “one of the few jobs where you’re constantly competing with dead men who get more work than we do,” says Karen Zacarias, who is among the area’s more successful playwrights. Zacarias’s work has been produced at 10 local theaters, and she’s one of the few D.C. dramatists with a professional position: She’s the only local among five playwrights in residence at Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute.

There are other area playwrights who’ve been widely produced, including Allyson Currin, Renee Calarco, Ernest Joselovitz and Gwydion Suilebhan. Many more are waiting offstage.

Currin calls Washington “a hotbed of new play development,” but that doesn’t mean that local writers’ work makes it to the largest stages, either here or elsewhere. In addition to the competition from “dead men,” area playwrights generally haven’t established strong individual voices. Instead, they’re known for versatility, moving between adult plays and the “young audiences” fare that’s a more reliable source of work. CONTINUE READING 


Washington Jewish Week

'Locally grown' - Theater J cultivates plays in home soil

by Lisa Traiger
Arts Correspondent

Participating in community-supported agriculture programs during the spring and summer growing season has become a popular way to eat healthy and subsidize local farms. At the Washington DC Jewish Community Center and synagogues throughout the region, weekly boxes of fresh vegetables and fruits arrive ready to savor during peak months from May through September. Why not, asked Ari Roth, artistic director of the center's Theater J, and Shirley Serotsky, director of literary and public programs, support locally grown theater as well.

"There's a precedent here at the DCJCC with the farm-share program," Serotsky noted last week, "so it felt right to look at the JCC involvement with the locally grown movement and explore how it might work with theater artists."

Locally Grown: Community-Supported Art From Our Own Garden is the result: a brand-new theater festival that shines a spotlight on Washington, D.C., metropolitan area playwrights, and includes a world-premiere mainstage production by the District's Renee Calarco, along with a series of staged readings that run in repertory through Feb. 13. Altogether six playwrights will receive opportunities to share works in progress, develop new ideas or fine tune not-yet-produced works. CONTINUE READING 

Washington City Paper

The Locavore’s Dilemma: Theater J Begins Its Festival of Local Plays
Posted by Sophia Bushong on Jan. 6, 2012 at 1:01 pm

It's 45 minutes before the pay-what-you-can preview of Renee Calarco's The Religion Thing, and I'm exchanging niceties with Ari Roth, Theater J's artistic director. We're chatting about the importance of telling stories with real-world weight when he hits me with this: "When you talk about the theater-ticket-buying community, they don't give a rat's ass or a flying fuck about local playwrights. They want the next hot show."

He doesn't mean it as an indictment of the community, or even as an effort to tell the audience what it should want to see. It's about proving to the audience that artists worthy of their attention are living all around them. That, anyway, is what drives Theater J's first annual Locally Grown Festival, which includes a four-week run of The Religion Thing, four workshop productions of a oneman show (Jon Spelman's The Prostate Dialogues), and staged readings of four plays-in-progress (by Jacqueline Lawton, Stephen Spotswood, Gwydion Suilebhan, and Laura Zam.) CONTINUE READING