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  • Jonathan Kalb

Doubtless Doubt

Whatever your opinion of the profundity of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning 2005 play Doubt: A Parable—and views on that in my circle are all over the map—we can all surely agree that it has the right title. A tightly written, 90-minute confrontation between a liberal and popular Catholic priest in 1964 and a stern and uptight nun who suspects him of child-molestation, it’s constructed as an inconclusive procedural, the story of a private, emotional, and admittedly biased investigation that leaves both sides tarnished and never clearly establishes guilt or innocence. Shanley very cleverly keeps the cards of evidence close to his chest in this work, leaving all possibilities tantalizingly open right up to the end. The tension, suspense, fun, and deeper meaning of the piece all depend crucially on maintaining doubt. The very first line is, “What do you do when you’re not sure?”—spoken by the priest in a sermon.

In the premiere directed by Doug Hughes 19 years ago, Brian F. O’Byrne and Cherry Jones sustained this tricky balance with their dry humor and quirky personalities. Both developed complicated, nuanced characters who challenged any rigid stereotypes the secular audience might have harbored. Jones’s Sister Aloysius was a martinet with a twinkle in her eye, relentless but also, it seemed, open to seeing a larger picture if one could be made plausible to her. She never seemed petty, even after deciding to dig in her heels. O’Byrne, for his part, 11 years younger than Jones yet playing her superior, was a serious yet puckish and upbeat Father Flynn, a smart man aware of his own limitations. He exuded an air of common sense and also vague respect for absurdity. You had the feeling he could have won Sister Aloysius over with just a few differently chosen words. There were hundreds of laughs in that 2005 show, very few at those characters’ expense. What we laughed at was their utterly unpredictable maneuvering round each other.

I am, alas, not a fan of the 2008 film of the play that Shanley directed, starring two world-class actors, Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. That film unfortunately relied too much on closeups and lurid emotion, too little on intelligence and wit. It had humor but only sporadically, a lot of it killed by reliance on reaction shots. The evocative New York exteriors and the 18-year age difference between Streep and Hoffman should have combined to provide period poignancy, clarifying and accentuating the Vatican II-driven generational conflict in the piece, but that effect never gelled either. The filmmaker-playwright evidently believed that looking deeply into two great actors’ eyes was enough, and it wasn’t. We needed contextual air to appreciate the characters as breathing denizens of a larger world.

Now the play is receiving its first Broadway revival, directed by Scott Ellis at the newly renamed Todd Haimes Theatre (formerly American Airlines Theatre) and starring Liev Schreiber and Amy Ryan. It’s easy to see why fine artists would want to revisit this work. So much has happened since its premiere that could cast the dramatic stalemate in rich new light: the #MeToo movement, for instance, the accession of Pope Francis, the release of the 2015 film Spotlight, new investigations into church abuse in Australia, Chile, Ireland and much, much more. The atmosphere of secrecy and grudging tolerance about Church-protected child abuse that still prevailed in 2005 is now swept away. How might this cleared deck change our view of Shanley’s troublingly Janus-faced story about not being sure?

I wish Ellis’s production contained some fascinating answer to that question. To me at least, it doesn’t. This is a staging that, shockingly, has decided who is right: Father Flynn. Schreiber plays a man so sincere, sensible, self-aware and worldly-wise compared to Ryan’s unequivocally priggish, narrow-minded, vindictive Sister Aloysius that we end up certain of his innocence. Flynn’s seeming confession of suppressed homosexual desire about halfway through the action in fact reinforces our trust in him because it makes him seem honest. The “parable” in this production, in other words, is about the dangers of deep-seated homophobia and rushing to judgement. Flynn is a victim punished unjustly by a revanchist schoolmarm unafraid of her putative superior because she’s slicker than he is at manipulating church bureaucracy.

It doesn’t help that Schreiber and Ryan are almost exactly the same age, because one effect of that is to remove the supposed threat Father Flynn’s youth poses to Sister Aloysius’s sense of church values (the script says Flynn is a generation younger). Ryan’s eyes never twinkle with flashes of self-doubt in this show. She never hints at possible understanding with Flynn. For her, it seems, conflict is purely conflict, and that is no welcoming environment for humor, even the dark sort. The main notes of this show are fear, frustration, vexation, and anger. It lacks surprise, suspense, and the relational complexity required for laughter.

I do sympathize with Ryan, whom I’ve always enjoyed onstage (in Uncle Vanya, Saved, Crimes of the Heart, and many other shows). With no notice, she gamely accepted the role of Sister Aloysius only a month ago after Tyne Daly dropped out due to illness. I can well imagine that developing the complex dance of repulsion and attraction that the relationship of Flynn and Aloysius requires just can’t be rushed. Also, the other two actors in the cast—Zoe Kazan as the younger teacher Sister James, and Quincy Tyler Bernstein as Mrs. Muller, the possibly abused boy’s mother—are giving fine performances. Both bring distinctive twists to their roles that are a pleasure to watch. The one twist they can’t provide, unfortunately, is the indispensable note of doubt that any production of Doubt needs. For that, it seems, we’ll have to wait until next time.

Photos: Joan Marcus

By John Patrick Shanley

Directed by Scott Ellis

Roundabout Theatre Company at Todd Haimes Theatre

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