by Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
"Doubt," a parable" by John Patrick Shanley
The Walter Kerr Theater
West 48th Street
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden May 7, 2005
Buy tickets to Doubt
As everyone may know by now "Doubt," written by John Patrick Shanley directed by the excellent Doug Hughes, has won the Pulitzer Prize, beating out "Pillowman" by the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. Which play actually deserved the prestigious award is of course, arguable. "Doubt" is only an hour and a half which is more attractive than the three hours of interminable talk in "Pillowman". "Doubt," though skimpy and melodramatic, is easier to follow and more in tune with the public's daily preoccupation with the scandalous behavior of the Catholic church and its scurrilous priests. Yet "Doubt" is really a one-act play, and its theme is obvious the moment the "wicked witch" nun (played by the gifted Cherry Jones), appears on stage. And therein lies one of the problems.
The story is too simplistic: a nun is obsessed with her suspicions that a priest, admirably played by Brian F. O'Byrne, is involved with a young student in you know what. Details are never mentioned except that the smell of alcohol was present on the boy's breath, but even that is open to doubt. That's the essence of the plot--everything is a question of doubt. And so the important subject becomes a mystery, a who done it? Is the priest guilty? Is the nun a psychotic? Is the boy a budding homosexual? Does the priest have a shady background? Nothing is ever definitely answered, except the lives of the nun and the priest are seriously altered. And not for the better, as revealed in a talky non-dramatized scene at the end between the "bad" nun and the "good nun."
That this subject matter has been treated as a melodramatic, almost TV mystery, albeit its philosophical preaching weakens the important message. Moreover, the main culprit, the nun, is a one-dimensional character. She is all bad all the time. What moves this woman? Belief? Tradition? Church teaching? Envy? Right from the beginning she vows to bring down this priest. Did she envy the fact that he was loved by the students rather than feared and hated as she was? None of this is developed; one longs for a more fleshed out character. That this play, as thin as it is, has been given a prize only testifies to the lack of really fine work on Broadway.
As for "Pillowman." It is a dark, depressing and unbelievable play that because of its obscurantism is beloved by critics and deemed a masterpiece. A canvas filled with the hideous killing of parents and children, and gory images and grotesque metaphors, the work and its intended meaning is obscure. What the metaphors stand for is unclear. So are the playwright's gruesome choices. What was he trying to tell us? The acting however is first class, but that was not enough for me to withstand the three interminable hours of talk and mayhem. No doubt I shall be accused of not understanding this so called "great" play but have a look at Charles Isherwood's piece in "The New York Times" Friday, May 6,2005. He explains it better than I. [Croyden]
Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
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