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A CurtainUp Review
Doubt Makes a Triumphant Transfer to Broadway

Cherry Jones Brian O'Byrne Heather Goldenhersh
Cherry Jones as Sister Aloysius, Brian F. O'Byrne as Father Flynn, Heather Goldenhersh as Sister James (Photos: Joan Marcus)
No doubt about it. This is the one play that anyone who cares about drama should see. No doubt either that there will be other actors bringing this terrific play to life in regional theaters throughout the country as well as abroad -- especially if it get the Pulitzer Prize it deserves. In fact, Los Angeles has already mounted it with Linda Hunt as Sister Aloysius (see Our Los Angeles production review). Still, it will be a challenge to match the excellence of the original foursome, so it's a pleasure to report that they are they are reprising their roles in the Broadway transfer and that they're, if anything, even better. Director Doug Hughes has seen to it that the elegant set has made the transition to the Walter Kerr stage and that, unlike many such transfers, there's been no loss of the play's intimate connection with the audience.

As a rule I don't like to see a production a second time so soon after the initial viewing, but the power of Shanley's writing and the performances had me enthralled as if I didn't know exactly what was coming. If anything, I was even more taken by the exquisite blend of humor and drama than before, and the play of emotions on these terrific actos' faces. Adriane Lenox's single scene as the mother of the boy who triggers the battle between the formidable Sister Aloysius and the charismatic but complex Father Flynn, struck me as even more crucial to the final scene and the qestions it leaves you to ponder.

While this is a serious drama about complicated human and social issues, it's also very funny and entertaining. Doubt banishes all those doomsday predictions about the death of the modern drama. I'll eat my notebook if it doesn't take some of this season's major prizes.

Below the details about where and when to see the current productions, followed by my original review. -- Elyse Sommer.

DOUBT: a Parable
Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street (Broadway & 8th Avenue) 212/239-6200
Broadway ticket prices: orchestra, $90.25; mezzanine, $90.25, $75.25, balcony, $26.25. Tuesday - Saturday @ 8pm, Wednesday & Saturday @ 2pm, Sunday @ 3pm From 3/09/05; re-opening, 3/31/05.
Closing 7/02/06 after 525 performances and 25 previews at theWalter Kerr.
-- the original review, also by Elyse Sommer
Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.--- Father Flynn in the sermon with which Doubt opens.

Doubt has gotten a bad reputation. People who are utterly certain are vulnerable to a brand of foolishness that people who maintain a level of doubt are not. ---John Patrick Shanley, explaining why audiences are left to decide for themselves whether Sister Aloysius is wise or overly zealous in her determination to expose the charismatic Father Flynn as a pedophile. (11/20/04 New York Times, interview with David Cote).
Now that I've seen Doubt, it's fair to say that John Patrick Shanley has achieved what hockey players scoring three goals call a hat trick. The first of his three goal scoring ventures, Sailor's Song, also a new play, is a charming fantasia in which death's somber shadow peeks through the moonlit sky that smiles on characters who periodically burst into romantic waltzes. This was followed by an early Shanley, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, about two down on their luck, emotionally crippled Bronx loners whose one-night stand rescues them from the deep blue sea of their loneliness and despair. Doubt, which just opened at Manhattan Theatre Club, is this unplanned mini-Shanley fest's piéce de rèsistance.

Besides being Shanley's third play to open within a fortnight, Doubt is also the season's third play about the child abuse issue that has rocked the Catholic Church. Ronan Noone's Lepers of Baile Baste, ran briefly in a very small theater so that it came and went without making a ripple. It focused on a group of young men in a small Irish town who still bore the scars inflicted on them as schoolboys by an abusive priest. The Irish setting pointed to the fact that this problem is not unique to this country. Though Noone was raised in Ireland, he was already a Boston resident when the scandals in Cardinal Law's diocese erupted. It was that scandal that inspired Michael Murphy's Sin (a Cardinal Deposed), a trenchant documentary forged from the transcripts of the deposition of the Cardinal's testimony about the administrative practices that allowed abusive priests to go unpunished.

In Doubt we never see the victim. There is only one suspect priest and though he probably is guilty, it's not an open and shut, beyond a doubt case. In fact, Father Flynn (Brian O'Byrne), is a more sympathetic character than Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones), the righteous nun who is certain that he represents a danger to the boys at the junior high school she rules with an iron fist. Unlike Cardinal Law, Sister Aloysius is a hands-on administrator who keeps a sharp eye on her teachers and students.

Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius are strong personalities and their battle makes this a story with philosophical implications beyond the issue play genre. This nun and priest are at loggerheads even without the pedophile situation to ignite their differences into a confrontation that affects the whole community. Shanley wittily illustrates this when the Sister purses her lips disapprovingly at Father Flynn's suggestion to introduce some fun tunes like "It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas" into the Christmas pageant. The community is kept within the confines of the school which is in the working class Bronx neighborhood that has been the creative wellspring for so many Shanley plays.

The doubt versus certainty theme's broader significance is underscored by having the story unfold through the prism of the 1960s -- a period marked by the Kennedy assassination trauma and the doubts it seeded about who killed the president and why; a period that also brought social change throughout the land and within the Catholic Church.

Above all, Doubt, is an engrossing drama. Mr. Shanley is blessed to have Cherry Jones and Brian O'Byrne as his two chief protagonists, as well as the always appealing Heather Goldenhersh as Sister James a novice teaching nun. Sister James' youthful fervor is one of this ugly situation's casualties, yet the way she deals with her loss of innocence adds to the play's power. While it essentially revolves around these three people, the fourth character, the mother (Adriane Lenox) of the boy probably being mentored more intimately than he should be, adds to the play's scope.

As the play wastes no time in establishing the characters' personalities, director Doug Hughes's fluid direction goes right past the potential pause between the script's two acts. Father Flynn's opening appearance has him looking regal in his green priest's robes, but he delivers the opening monologue (quoted at the top of this reviews) in the pure Bronx-speak of a man who can relate to the people in his parish. Thus it will come as no surprise to see him in sweat pants in his role as the school's athletic coach. When the priest steps down from his pulpit and the scene shifts to Sister Alyosius' office, it doesn't take more than a minute to see that we are in the presence of a formidable woman who brooks no nonsense from anyone. She's that stern termagant who plays a role in many a Catholic school graduate's memory book -- as Sister James is the teacher they adored.

A visit to Sister Alyosius' office is clearly never casual or fun -- not for Sister James, not for Father Flynn, and not for Mrs. Muller, the mother of the student whose relationship with Father Flynn makes Sister Alyosius certain that she must bring the priest down. If Mrs. Muller's one scene reveals almost too much baggage to attach to that unseen boy, it nevertheless adds yet another layer of meaning and complexity,

Though Adriane Lenox brings great dignity to Mrs. Muller's painful viewpoint, and Heather Goldenhersh is easily the play's most likeable character, it's Jones and O'Byrne who electrify the stage. Jones is tall, but as the forbidding Sister Alyosius she seems a giantess -- albeit a very human giantess. As he did in last season's Frozen, O'Byrne again displays his gift for conveying a complex psyche. His Father Flynn is a convincingly bright and caring priest; yet one can believe that he may be a monster.

The play could probably work with a fairly bare bones set. Indeed, when you first take your seat, the stage looks black and empty. But with John Lee Beatty credited as set designer you'll be right to expect some elegant scenic effects. As O'Byrne's begins his opening sermon, Pat Collins' lighting subtly bring brick walls with a stained glass window into focus. This becomes a permanent backdrop. The principal's office, a church garden between the nuns' and priests' quarters, and a gym locker room are rolled on and off stage without the slightest awkardness or artificiality.

Doubt has all the ingredients to warrant a transfer to a theater where it can enjoy an open-ended run. It is not so much a play about a hot button current events issue than simply ninety minutes of good theater, with enough Shanleyian humor to entertain and plenty of food for post-theater discussions. Like Proof, another Manhattan Theatre Club drama that took the leap to Broadway (not to mention a Pulitzer Prize), Doubt features a commercially viable small but magnificent cast. Unlike Sister Aloysius, I have little doubt that if that cast as well as the current design team were part of such a move, audiences would welcome this as an all too rare opportunity to see a new, well crafted American-made drama.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea
Sailor's Song
Lepers of Baile Baste

Doubt: a Parable
Written by John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Doug Hughes
Cast: Heather Goldenhersh (Sister James), Cherry Jones (Sister Aloysius), Adriane Lenox (Mrs. Muller)and Brian F. O’Byrne(Father Flynn)
Set Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design: Pat Collins
Original Music & Sound Design: David Van Tieghem
Running time: 90 Minutes without an intermission
-Manhattan Theatre Club, New York City Center - Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, 212/ 581-1212.
From 11/03/04 to 1/30/05; opening 11/22/04.
Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00 PM, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 PM, and Sunday evening performances at 7:00 PM. Tickets are $60.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on November 18th press performance

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