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New York Theater

Doubt

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At a time when "faith" is all the rage comes a play called "Doubt," which suggests that faith can be a matter of seeking God's will rather than always being sure of having already found it. At a Catholic middle school in the Bronx in 1964, Sister Aloysius, the principal, believes that charismatic Father Flynn is a pedophile. Shrewd, cold, ruthless, Sister Aloysius is suspicious of just about everything except suspicion. Father Flynn, on the other hand, is warm, friendly, sympathetic, devoted, a man-of-the-people priest, at home on the basketball court as well as in the pulpit. Still.... Young Sister James does not know whom, or what, to believe.

Only 90 minutes long, the play, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is neat, economical, well-made. There is plenty of suspense -- and the excitement of a good fight -- as Sister Aloysius stalks her prey and Father Flynn strikes back, with Sister James in the middle. Moreover, John Patrick Shanley has written three thoughtful, articulate, sometimes eloquent characters. Four, actually -- the mother of the school's only Negro pupil appears in one scene, and she too has something to say.

The play's moral questionings are always urgent, never abstract; Doug Hughes' staging for Manhattan Theatre Club, now transferred to Broadway, roots them firmly in an American working-class Catholic environment that the playwright clearly knows in the marrow of his bones. Sets (John Lee Beatty) and costumes (Catherine Zuber) are realistically detailed; lighting (Pat Collins) and music (David Van Tieghem) are restrained and functional. Brían F. O'Byrne and Cherry Jones as Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius go at each other with conviction in solid Irish-American accents (kudos to Stephen Gabis, the dialect coach) and they are finely supported by Heather Goldenhersh as Sister James and Adriane Lenox as the mother of the pupil Father Flynn wants to seduce -- or, perhaps, to save.

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This review first appeared on Backstage.com on 4/4/05.

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