New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

New York City Theater

"Doubt, a parable"
Manhattan Theatre Club, NY

"Sin (A Cardinal Deposed)"
Theatre Row, NY

Now it begins. Two off-Broadway plays about the disclosures rocking the Catholic Church leave their audiences literally stunned. One, "Sin (A Cardinal Deposed)" is in its final week. The other, "Doubt, a parable" is only now starting its climb to what, if justice be done, may propel it to the front ranks. Neither is a polemic; neither favors only one side; both will provide arguments for years to come.

John Patrick ("Moonstruck") Shanley's "Doubt" is a work that reaches near-tragic proportions. So compelling, so shattering, so brilliantly acted and directed, it may turn out to be the hit of the season.

The time is Autumn, 1964, one year after the JFK assassination. The place is the all-male St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, run by a martinet of a nun, one Sister Aloysius. Rigid and old-fashioned, she's given to such pronouncements as "What do you do when you're not sure? You work for God's direction." Once married (her husband was killed in World War II), she wears her order's traditional black habit as if it were a suit of mourning.

What she mourns for is a time before Vatican II blew a wind as specific and fresh as the one that stirs leaves in the school courtyard. Thwarted by new Church law, she finds an enemy in Father Flynn, the tough, handsome priest who wants the church to become "progressive and welcoming." His compassion extends to his sermons: he preaches about the kind of doubt that rises out of despair and that "can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty."

But Sister Aloysius is nothing if not certain and she makes sure her staff knows it. When she calls the shy Sister James into her office, it's not to praise the teacher but to admonish her for loving both her curriculum and her students too much.

Even more determined to "get" Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius seizes upon flimsy circumstances to accuse him of molesting one of the students, the school's first and only African-American. Thus begins a terrible tug of war, one in which nature itself plays a part - in the shuffling of leaves, in the warning call of a crow. It's also a war with no clear answers: we never find out if the accusations have a factual basis.

But it is a smashing evening of theater, often funny, just as often horrifying. And it features the kind of acting that is rightly termed "unforgettable," with a cast headed by two Tony winners, Cherry Jones as Sister Aloysius and Brian F. O'Byrne as Father Flynn. Also fine are Heather Goldenhersh as Sister James and Adriane Lenox as the resolute mother of the supposedly molested boy. Directed by Doug Hughes (who wisely left the stewardship of Long Wharf for a career in New York) with enough tension to take the breath away, this is top-notch theater.

A similar body-blow is delivered by "Sin." At the end of the play, the audience is too shaken to applaud, even though the tale of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law's inaction in the face of mounting evidence about the clergy's sexual abuse of children is familiar.

Michael Murphy's distillation of depositions, speeches and internal church documents sends up flares of contradictions and complexities. It concludes with a heart-stopping recollection by one victim that is all the more horrifying for being delivered in a quiet monotone.

The cumulative effect throws a pitiless light not so much on guilt as responsibility. (Cardinal Law never had a word of comfort or compassion for abuse's victims, only for its perpetrators.) Although the shady executive dealings, cover-ups, and hypocrisies are committed by a religious institution, it might as easily have been Enron. Even granting that one "can't undo the past," hope and trust were violated, emotions stunted, and irreversible harm done.

The human faces behind the accusations are palpable, and that includes the Cardinal, played by John Cullum as a man who uses indecision as a weapon, stumbling, rephrasing, and reigning in disdain under a veneer of reasonableness. Thomas Jay Ryan is a disarming prosecuting lawyer, while John Leonard Thompson is an oily defense attorney.

As the late Patrick McSorley, abused when he was 12, Pablo T. Schreiber is very moving. Director Carl Forsman pays particular attention to the rhythms of what might have been a much more staid presentation since the entire action takes place around a law office table.

Both "Sin" and "Doubt" raise questions they do not - and can not -- fully answer. With no out-and-out villains or heroes, no extremes of darkness and light, these riveting plays condemn unrelenting, insensitive, censorious authoritarians so sure of themselves that, as Father Flynn says, they ignore that "there are circumstances beyond facts - there are emotions."

Twisting "morality" to suit their own ends and condemn what they fear, both Cardinal Law and Sister Aloysius stand in for those among us who conveniently forget that life is not simplistic but as ambiguous, uncertain and fallible as human beings. Even the tragic Sister Aloysius finally realizes the irony in her fatal flaw, that "in the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God."

-- David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 29, 2004

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