by John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Doug Hughes
Starring Cherry Jones and Brian F. O’Byrne
Walter Kerr Theatre / 219 West 48th Street / (212) 239-6200

Reviewed by David Spencer

It’s 1964, well before priests-abuse-boys scandals will rock the media, when cover-up and taking the word of a man over a woman is the order of the day, and that’s why plain-spoken Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones), who runs the St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, has a problem.

One of her younger teachers, Sister James (Heather Goldenhersh) has come to her with a suspicion and evidence that is circumstantial at best. She is not sure and wishes to do no one harm…but something about the Muller boy’s behavior is not right and it seems to be related to attention paid him by Father Flynn (Brían F. O’Byrne).

There is much room for interpretation here. For mistake. For the benefit of the doubt. But Sister Aloysius trusts her instinct on this. She just knows the man is guilty. And she’s prepared to play hardball. No matter how sympathetic or reasoned or innocent a figure the Father cuts.

As Broadway offerings go, "Doubt" by John Patrick Shanley, is quite short; not quite 90 minutes long, no intermission. But it packs a wallop that plays twice the length, with three times the cast, might envy. (For the record, by the way "Doubt" is a transfer from off-Broadway: it originated earlier in the season at the Manhattan Theatre Club.)

There are a number of remarkable things about it: first of all, it manages the balance of being irreverent without sacrilege. And it does so via unflinchingly human characterizations. Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn are Bronx-tough, which informs their behavior, candor and speech, perhaps even more than the religious backdrop.

Second: The story, which might so easily be one of those TV movie things (is he or isn’t he falsely accused; the issue from both sides; the relative guilt of the accuser who acts without proof, blah de blah), takes unexpected twists and turns that both heighten the expected issues and turn them on their collective ear. Sister James is innocent but not altogether naïve…and when Sister Aloysius entreats the young boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller (Adriane Lenox) for help, well, let’s just say the issue only gains complexity, and seems to render any conclusion even more speculative.

Third: The dialogue sparkles and crackles with passion, dialect, humor and an undercurrent of driving anger. Wonderful words, spoken by wonderful actors.

Finally: The play’s ending lives up to its promise. Touching, ironic in an utterly unforeseeable way, conclusive yet provocative, and–at the very last, and I mean the very last–revealing of an entirely new kind of truth.

As to the actors: one might be hard-pressed to say of this portrayal that it’s the jewel in Ms. Jones’s crown–how heavy can that thing be?–but something about the confluence of this actress and that role makes for an indelible impression. Similarly, Mr. O’Byrne sets the bar right at the top: the play starts with Father James giving a sermon, and from syllable one, dripping with the sound of the Bronx, he shocks us into an awareness of a very different yet profoundly real church environment. If Ms. Goldenhersh and Ms. Lenox aren’t quite as stellar, the roles don’t encourage virtuosic interpretations; it is enough that they are able and believable foils. All of this is achieved under seamless and in the best sense invisible direction by Doug Hughes.

If there is one straight play you fork over your cash money for this season, let Mr. Shanley’s deceptively compact drama be it. Along with the season’s earlier "Brooklyn Boy" (alas, no longer with us) it lands as a great American play that can hold its head high with the best of Williams, Miller, Simon and any other icon of the last century.

And there’s no doubt about it…

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