Review: “The Loser Letters” takes the stage at Catholic University

“The Loser Letters,” Mary Eberstadt’s tale of an ex-Christian’s attempt to improve the New Atheism via perky blog posts from rehab, is making its dramatic premiere at the Catholic University of America. The play, adapted from Eberstadt’s novel by Jeffrey Fiske, has three major elements. One of these is brilliant and charming; one is powerful but laced with melodrama; and one so underthought that it’s degrading to the audience. Unfortunately, I’ve named these elements in reverse order of how much of the play’s time and attention they receive.

First, the good. The major dramatic addition to Eberstadt’s concept is “the Shadow,” a mysterious figure played by Olympic gymnast Chellsie Memmel and choreographed by D.C.’s queen of weird dance, Synetic Theater’s Irina Tsikurishvili. Memmel’s Shadow represents the main character’s inner demons; she’s a spooky joy as she twines and bounces around the industrial jungle-gym set.

The Shadow disappears for a while late in the play. That’s because we’ve reached the heart of the story Eberstadt wants to tell. The theological musings of the play’s first half were only a cloak for “A.F. Christian’s” (Madeleine Cristina Murphy) real concern: She is consumed by regret for an abortion she had under pressure from her atheist boyfriend.

Her regret is portrayed—or rather described, since the entire play is just the main character talking into her phone—in increasingly-extreme images. She winds up completely losing her grip on reality, having tea parties with a doll that represents her aborted daughter.

I think Eberstadt was aiming for phantasmagoria, a scene with the intensity of the passage in Infinite Jest about the woman who carries her dead baby through the streets. As described, though, the scene was straight-faced and soupy, closer to a Chick tract than to a medieval morality play.

“The Loser Letters” is well-intentioned but frustrating because its handling of both atheism and Christian thought is so casual. A large majority of the play’s run time is taken up with supposedly atheist ruminations that are all actually about how much better Christianity is than atheism. Churchgoers, we learn, give various percentage points more to charity and volunteer more; all great architecture is religious in origin; even Christopher Hitchens’s favorite writers were Christians!

Nothing about the inner life of an actual non-Christian is clearly imagined here. We learn nothing about the main character’s specific religious experience: What was her church like growing up? Seriously, was she even Catholic or Protestant? She glibly mentions “religious hypocrisy” and disturbing Bible passages but gives no examples from her own experience.

Her sources of authority are bizarre. “A.F.” name-drops George Weigel, Michael Novak, Bernard Nathanson (“Of course you’ve heard of him”), Elizabeth Anscombe, Tony Blair, and even Bishop Fulton Sheen, bless her heart, but never mentions Dorothy Day, with whom her story might have some resonance. Her understanding of Christianity draws more from 1990s American conservatism than from the lives of the saints.

“A.F.’s” bad boyfriend, “Lobo” (of course he’s named Lobo), persuades her to get an abortion by giving her atheist books, which is somehow both unbelievable and unsurprising. She and he descend into drug addiction for no reason; it’s just what women do after abortion I guess. Their relationship is cliched where it isn’t vague.

There’s no exploration of the complex terrors of pregnancy that provoke a woman’s sense of helplessness in the face of bodily changes that can threaten health, employment, education, relationships, and even their lives. Abortion is presented as a simple choice made by hedonists who sacrifice the weak to their amorality. We see none of the more complex reasons women seek abortion: the feeling of helplessness, for example, or the belief that abortion is the responsible choice. In almost 15 years of crisis pregnancy counseling I’ve spoken to many women who wanted abortions because they feared losing their job or burdening their parents. I’ve counseled women whose post-abortion emotions ranged all across the spectrum, from anguish to confidence in the rightness of their choice. Several surveys have found that the most common emotion women experience immediately after an abortion is relief; I can understand wanting to tell a story of pure remorse, but this play doesn’t seem to know that other feelings are even possible.

In fact, I don’t know why people ever sin in this play; their sins are all joyless (did A.F. enjoy sex with Lobo?) and lead only to increased misery.

“The Loser” in the title at first appears to be Jesus, and that makes sense: He died condemned, in agony and public humiliation. The contrast with the ancient world, which is one of the play’s best weird digressions, highlights Jesus-as-Loser, the champion of the helpless who Himself became helpless to save us. But occasionally “the Loser” means any god worshiped by any theist. The specifics of Jesus’ life, and especially the suffering we enter into when we act rightly—not the suffering we experience as the result of our sins—make no appearance.

CUA required its freshman class to attend this play. This strikes me as a mistake. The last thing young, confident American Catholics need is bad arguments about the personal superiority of Christians. No, wait, that’s the second-to-last thing they need. The last thing they need is propaganda that glosses over the cost of discipleship.

There is a poignant, countercultural story at the heart of this play, in which a woman’s emotional bond with the unwanted child in her womb leads her on an intellectual journey through theology and history. A.F. notes that from the earliest days of the faith, part of what distinguished Christianity’s moral code was its protection of the helpless. She doesn’t name the Didache, the first-century Christian text which includes prohibitions on abortion and infanticide, but she describes the slavery and child-abandonment that formed the Roman world into which the infant Jesus was born. Caryl Churchill or Danai Gurira, if they shared Eberstadt’s convictions, might be able to craft a play exploring the parallels between a woman’s conversion under Roman empire and her (re)conversion under imperial capitalism.

For such a play to be honest, however, it would require more artistic craft, more empathy with sinners, and more intellectual care than has been has shown here.