When two Manhattan Methodist churches merged in 1937 to become The Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, few could have imagined the role that the Upper West Side building would ultimately play in the religious life of the city. Since 1991, it has shared its West 86th Street space with Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, along with Ethiopian Evangelicals, LGBT Christian Latinos, and other faith communities.
A new play, “The Church of Why Not,” performed at the church’s resident theater space, The West End Theater, imagines a bar mitzvah boy named Eli (Nathaniel Gotbaum) encountering other religious traditions at SPSA. For Ari Laura Kreith, who conceived the play and worked with the three playwrights — Camilo Andres Almonacid, Jenny Lyn Bader and J. Stephen Brantley — the play, “like all good theater, enables us to have a visceral experience of someone else’s reality.”
Because her father was a mathematician who loved to travel, Kreith, who grew up in a secular Jewish family, spent time in 37 different countries during her childhood. After majoring in East Asian studies at Yale, she aspired to become a “storyteller, who could bring diverse perspectives to bear.”
Kreith’s first play, “167 Tongues,” which was created by a dozen different playwrights working in tandem with each other, took its title from the fact that 167 languages have to be translated in the emergency room at Elmhurst Hospital.
A later play of hers focused on the neighborhood as the center of the city’s sex trafficking industry. At SPSA, she discovered “amazing ways in which culture and community come together, such as when I saw women from the church cooking dinner for immigrant women who had escaped from prostitution.” Kreith’s own Jewish identity, she reflected, “manifests itself in theater, and in activism, and in how those two worlds come together.”
“The Church of Why Not,” Kreith told The Jewish Week, is about “the ways in which divinity manifests itself in everyday action.” It is set in multiple locations within the building, including the food pantry, social hall, sanctuary and front steps. Eli discovers characters from other faiths who are undergoing their own families’ weddings, funerals, and other rites of passage. In the play, the bar mitzvah boy (who is himself the product of an interfaith marriage) learns, Kreith said, “what ritual means in a contemporary context and how to find an inclusive and personal connection to religious tradition.”
Kreith would like to see SPSA become a model for other houses of worship throughout the city. “We can and should build more institutions like this,” she concluded. “Human beings with passion, commitment and faith (whether in God or in humanity) are the ones who make this possible.”
“The Church of Why Not” runs through March 15 at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, 263 W. 86th St. For tickets, $18, visit theatre167.org.