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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
In the opening sermon of this revival, Father Tim Farley (Tony Coleman) jokes that he had a dream about Julie Andrews becoming a priest. In 1980, when Mass Appeal first opened (at the Manhattan Theatre Club and subsequently on Broadway), this might have prompted the parishioners to hum a few bars of "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria". Today, the first thought is more likely to be, ah, a slightly outdated religious version of Victor/Victoria. The shift reflects the threshold challenge of the play: to demonstrate relevance in shifting sands. (For purists, and to complicate matters further, Julie wasn't mentioned in the published script; Bette Davis was.)
Mass Appeal presents a struggle between right and wrong, as heavy-handedly personified by its two characters, Father Farley and a young priest-in-training, Mark Dolson (Paul McGrane). The central religious discussions -- should women and celibate gay men be priests -- seem less controversial today than then, not because they have been resolved but simply because there seems so little light emanating from such discussions. The central moral issues are also from well-worn paths: Is it OK to lie? Do the ends justify the means? Is comfortable complacency such a bad thing -- as long as collection plate revenues don't drop off?
There is no doubt where the playwright's sentiments lie.
Straddling this heavy debate is a fairly funny two-man play that manages to keep the audience entertained and laughing, often out loud. This entertainment is not without cost, however, since it relies on the full catalog of Catholic priest stereotypes to deliver a good part of its humor. (Farley is a burgundy-drinking, Mercedes-driving, golf-loving, racing form-reading Irishman of the cloth. The priesthood seems to be the confluence of men with homosexual tendencies and those with homophobic ones -- perhaps not with mutual exclusion.)
It is in the priest's study that most of the action takes place. Father Farley assumes the role of often innane, if arguably practical, mentor; and Dolson becomes his unrepentent conscience, if not his mentee. Visits to the church pulpit serve to expose Father Farley's craft, as well as Dolson's seeming lack of it. Farley's tell-em-what-they want-to-hear-so-they'll-come-back-for-more method relies on more polls, surveys and audience reaction than most local television stations. Dolson's rantings against materialism don't sit well in Farley's well-pampered parish.
All hell breaks loose, no pun intended, when a witch hunt against two seminarians suspected of homosexual behavior commences. When he speaks out in their defense, Dolson is forced to acknowledge his own experimentation on both sides of the fence. After this display of honesty, Dolson is in the doghouse, but he's not going to be wearing a collar.
Lacing seriousness and humor can be a tricky business. Here, the proper balance is never realized. The funny stuff diverts attention so the characters never become completely credible, and the meaningfulness of their relationship is lost.
If we can judge a role by the company it keeps, Father Farley should have been a pretty interesting fellow. Attracting attention from Milo O'Shea, Charles Durning, Brian Keith and Jack Lemmon (in the somewhat altered movie), one can envision (or at least imagine) a certain excitement lacking in Mr. Coleman's performance here. This Father is a sad pragmatist, who seems to be searching for a message that is never expressed. Veering from pathetic to caring, from calculating (think Bill Clinton as interpreted by Dick Morris) to resigned, from apologetic to angry, his mood swings range from inexplicable to bizarre. When the time comes to believe he has real emotions, we are more inclined to shrug our shoulders.
Paul McGrane's Dolson is more compelling. A mixture of brash innocence and callow idealism, the young seminarian's early performances on the pulpit are visions of wide-eyed enthusiasm. Although sometimes a bit too glib, there is no doubt about his feelings or his unwavering values. Too bad his exuberance goes largely unanswered.
David Raphel's rich gothic set, with a great stained glass window at rear, serves the production well, as does Gregory Cohen's lighting. The Irish Rep's own dark, lush walls and seats blend nicely.