‘Doubt’ Broadway Review: Liev Schreiber and Amy Ryan Battle for the Soul of the Church

John Patrick Shanley’s play receives a knockout revival

Liev Schreiber, Zoe Kazan in "Doubt: A Parable"
Liev Schreiber, Zoe Kazan in "Doubt: A Parable"

“Doubt: A Parable” sets up a fascinating power play between two very unequal forces, and it’s thrilling to watch Amy Ryan’s nun and Liev Schreiber’s priest duke it out for 90 minutes on stage. A feisty revival of John Patrick Shanley’s play opened Thursday at the Roundabout’s Todd Haimes Theatre.

First, let’s applaud the change of that venue’s name. It’s wonderful to see a great impresario honored and not a corporate sponsor. The American Airlines Theatre never sounded quite right.

It’s also nice to report that the first production into the newly renamed theater is a real winner. “Doubt” worked beautifully off Broadway in 2004 (and again, on Broadway the following year), but the dreary 2008 film version with Meryl Streep and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman remains a limp affair that possesses not a smidgen of humor.

“Doubt” is often very funny. At least, it was funny on stage with its original cast Cherry Jones and Brian F. O’Byrne, and once again, it’s often a laugh riot with Schreiber and Ryan, her Sister Aloysius getting to deliver most of the zingers. This nun is such a control freak that she repeatedly challenges a younger nun (Zoe Kazan), who, in effect, represents the compassion and charity of the Second Vatican Council. Ryan’s Sister Aloysius fully embraces the punishment and retribution of the Old Testament, and the whiplash between her and Kazan’s Sister James fuels “Doubt” with mordant humor. But above all, “Doubt” is a power play in which the Roman Catholic Church patriarchy, and not a nun on the warpath, is the real villain.

When the play had its world premiere, there were constant headlines about yet another pedophile priest. Make that “priests.” It didn’t go unnoticed in that storm of abuse that there used to be at least 20 nuns for every priest in the Church.

Jones presented a real fascist dictator on stage. Ryan matches her there, but also makes Sister Aloysius a tad nuttier. O’Byrne turned Father Brendan Flynn into a nice, comfy regular Joe of a basketball coach (In Catholic schools of the 1960s, the time period of “Doubt,” priests were often the equivalent of the public-school athletic coach that masqueraded as a social-scene teacher). Schreiber is anything but nice. As an actor, he can’t help but be heavy, and while that might appear to work against Shanley’s play, it simply makes Ryan’s challenge all the greater — and so, her take-down of him is all the more stunning.

Sister Aloysius has an odd precedent in the movies. For me, she brought to mind Orson Welles’ corrupt detective in “Touch of Evil.” She is as desiccated as he is bloated. Both characters may be right, but neither of them plays fair.

As the mother whose son may or may not have been molested by Father Flynn, Quincy Tyler Bernstine wisely resists turning the character into a victim, which is what Viola Davis does in the film version. Bernstine presents this mother as being as strong and resolute as Sister Aloysius, which presents a flip side to the effects of the nun’s tunnel vision. Both women wear blinders, but only one of them knows it.

Scott Ellis directs as if he were the referee at a boxing match.


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