Written and Directed by Jack Neary
Featuring Bobbie Steinbach, Ellen Colton, & Cheryl McMahon
Lyric Stage Company
140 Clarendon St. Boston / (617) 437-7172

Reviewed by Will Stackman

Three of the short sketches integral to "Beyond Belief" have already been published in Baker's yearly anthology culled from the Boston Theatre Marathon. These pieces were definitely crowd pleasers, so there was disappointment when a fourth did not appear last spring, shortly after the crisis surrounding child abuse began to engulf the Boston Archdiocese. Some speculation began when it was announced that a play including this material would replace the previously-announced January offering at the Lyric. Whether their author Jack Neary would find a way to address the question and perhaps find some humor in it was a definite question. He didn't find much humor in the situation, but he did find a way to combine the sketch comedy of his earlier work with a poignant conclusion which justifies the script's subtitle "or Catholics are people too!"

Basically writer/director Neary, who helmed an excellent production of "Lend Me a Tenor" for the Lyric last season, recycled his comic vignettes to form the first half of the show. In these, three Catholic widows living across the street from a convent, sit on the porch, reading their papers. Their discussions of the mores of the times, inevitably get around to sex. Gert, played with a broad Massachusetts accent by award-winner Bobbie Steinbach is forever trying to get Alma, played wide-eyed by Ellen Cotton, to understand the nuances of the sexual revolution. Joining them on Alma's porch is Marjorie, played by Cheryl McMahon, better educated but forever embarrassed by Gert's forthrightness. Still, together, Gert and Marjorie try to enlighten Alma concerning Monica, what gays do, and the meaning of menage a trois -- or "trwahr" as Gert has it.

Not to omit the younger generation, Lindsay Joy , who just finished "Our Town" and Christopher Loftus, who's new to downtown do an amusing turn in a sketch where he's been hypnotized to believe he's the super hero ,"Catholic Man", while she's "horny woman." Guilt anyone? Cabaret favorite Robert Saoud contributes a song and dance routine entitled "Sex and Catholics" with new lyrics for an old standard. The first part's all very safe.

The second half, consisting of two longer pieces, brings it all home. The act starts with Loftus as a young priest dozing in the confessional. He's awakened by his cell phone; another young priest is calling about their evening's recreation. Father Bob breaks off the call when someone comes in. It's Saoud as Santa Claus, come to confess a four year affair--every Xmas eve--with a young mother in the parish. Joy shows up as Natalie, Santa's seductress, and accusations fly from either side of the confessional. Father Bob finally gets each to say they're sorry, doles out Acts of Contrition, and flops back in his chair. Natalie runs home and Santa finally leaves. The phone rings, it's his friend who says he didn't call earlier. Was it a dream or a nightmare? The scene is funny enough, and might have worked as part of "The Xmas Files" at the BCA during the holiday season.

But the final scene is back on the porch. Gert and Marjorie are discussing pedophile priest as they read the news. Alma is baking macroons offstage. Each expresses doubts about their church. Marjorie councils against trying to explain things to Alma. Gert seems raring to go but without the glee she showed earlier talking about "it." When Alma brings in the fresh cookies she reminds them that tomorrow would have been her dead son's birthday. And when they get around to the news, she opens up. She finally understands why teenage Rick committed suicide and left a note which read simply, "Ask Father Anderson". The local audience will realize that this tragedy is based on at least one prominent case facing Boston's Church.

What Neary has done, to the best of his considerable ability, is raise the question of how the Catholic laity views sex, in the face of the rote instruction from "repressed virgins." The show has no answers. Clearly saying you're sorry isn't enough--even if you really mean it. But it might be a start. It will be interesting to see what theatres, professional or community, pick up this script. Neary has had some success with "Jerry Finnegan's Sister", "Five Nickels", and "To Forgive Divine" which has just been purchased by Disney.

The physical production takes place on realistic but stagey wagons designed by Janie E. Howland set against a stylized small-town backdrop. Gail Astrid Buckley has found the right costumes for these characters, particularly Gert's nylon running suits. The incidently music between scenes is all Bing Crosby, harking to his priestly roles no doubt. The presentation is at the right level for the material, which would seem brittle against too much realism, and diminished by too much modern stagecraft.

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