Richard Chamberlain and Brooke ShieldsinThe Exorcist
(© Geffen Playhouse)
Richard Chamberlain and Brooke Shields
inThe Exorcist
(© Geffen Playhouse)
How did director John Doyle and playwright John Pielmeier turn the visceral, horrific film masterpiece The Exorcist, now at the Geffen Playhouse, into a successful stage play? The answer is they didn't.

Instead, the resulting stage work is a noble, if decidedly dull, effort hampered by the baggage of its source material -- which includes a 13-year-old girl spewing pea soup at a priest, crushing the testicles of a doctor, crab-crawling backwards down the stairs and turning her head completely around.

Adapted from the novel by William Peter Blatty, and following the framework of the movie, the play focuses on young Regan MacNeil (Emily Yetter) who has had a demon enter her body -- to the horror of her mother, Chris (Brooke Shields), who, at first, consults neurologists and psychologists for answers.

Eventually, she turns to a self-doubting priest, Father Damian Karras (David Wilson Barnes) and another man of the cloth, Father Merrin (Richard Chamberlain), who attempt to exorcise the murderous demon from the defenseless child.

Doyle makes some poor choices, such as having a Greek Chorus representing the voice of the demon. The gentlemen speaking the lines behind the severe gate on Scott Pask's symbolic Gothic set sounds like the congregation at Mass instead of a vicious spirit. And while the set is chilling on its own, it loses the subtlety of the ordinary Georgetown townhouse of the movie. To find the devil beside that harsh black fence under that daunting brass crucifix should surprise no one.

Pielmeier and Doyle have some intriguing thoughts about religion, as well as the danger of allowing pride, not love, to lead many towards so called charitable acts. But the play becomes an endless talk-fest as Father Merrin pontificates about these subjects, which could benefit from some visual back-up to make their point. However, Chamberlain is consistently excellent, bringing dignity and authority to the role of the senior cleric.

Shields, who is naturally a warm and loving persona, begins the play as hysterical and has nowhere else to go for the rest of the evening. By the time the devil arrives, she's already on edge. Yetter looks way too old for Regan despite her small frame; she has a maturity that dispels the tension of the devil taking over an innocent. Shockingly, Barnes underplays the entire time as if he assumed this was a blocking rehearsal rather than an actual performance.

On the plus side, Harry Groener as the tragic drunkard Burke lends some much-needed humor (and sadness) to the proceedings, while Roslyn Ruff is riveting as a conflicted nanny with memories of Rwandan massacres informing her mood. Her eyes have seen true evil for many years -- and this prepares her for arrival of the ultimate monster. We, however, may have dozed off by then.