On the plus side is Doyle’s stark staging, which keeps the actors onstage whether they are in a scene or not. Under Jane Cox’s dim, spooky lighting, they lurk as spectral figures behind set designer Scott Pask’s filigreed wrought-iron cage—a huge construction that recalls a church and dominates the cavernous Geffen stage—speaking in unison as the demon and moving from the shadows into the action whenever necessary. The promise of the first half is undeniably exciting—especially before the remarkably entertaining Harry Groener, as drunken film director Burke Dennings, ends up a broken mass at the bottom of M Street—but from there the inspiration fades. The climactic scene—containing the pivotal exorcism and the fate of the two priests—is a major disappointment. This is surely a difficult story to tell in 95 intermissionless minutes, but it’s hard to imagine why Pielmeier and Doyle chose to turn that crucial denouement into something so truncated and underwhelming.
As Chris MacNeil, the movie-star mother who watches her sweet little daughter, Regan (an exceptionally agile Emily Yetter), morph rather quickly into Beelzebub, Brooke Shields is quite effective at first. But in the second half her role devolves into stridency, as she is given little to do other than spew a string of expletives that makes Father Karras (David Wilson Barnes) comment that he sees where Regan gets her penchant for inappropriate language. Barnes is excellent in an underwritten part that disappears just when Karras should develop a new set of cojones. Roslyn Ruff is also good as the MacNeil household servant, whose own secrets are mentioned but never satisfactorily explored.
The supporting players do their best to breathe life into even less developed and more insignificant characters, but the glaringly inadequate Richard Chamberlain—who finds none of exorcist Father Merrin’s strength or weary disillusionment—drags this production into the depths of theatrical Hades. His early monologues at the front of the stage—descending occasionally from a thronelike chair to directly warn the audience of the impending and never-ending evil that keeps the world a challenging place in which to exist—are ill-advised, at least as delivered by Chamberlain, who seems to be doing a shallow vocal imitation of Richard Burton. When Merrin finally enters directly into the action to rid Regan of her not-so-imaginary Captain Howdy, not much happens; even his death is so underplayed that it takes other characters checking for a pulse to tell us that he’s met his maker.
If the Geffen hadn’t resorted to trick casting and borrowing Teller from Penn Jillette to consult on the frustratingly negligible visual effects, Pielmeier’s desired simplicity might have had a chance. Right now "The Exorcist" is a potentially noteworthy effort that no matter how richly produced or safely cast is still an incomplete work in progress.
Presented by and at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 LeConte Ave., L.A. July 11–Aug. 12. Tue.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m. (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com. Casting by Telsey + Company/Phyllis Schuringa.