Janel Moloney and Jeremy Shamos
in 100 Saints You Should Know
(© Joan Marcus)
Janel Moloney and Jeremy Shamos
in 100 Saints You Should Know
(© Joan Marcus)
"You either got it or you ain't," Mama Rose sings in Gypsy; and while she isn't talking about that mysterious condition called faith, she could well be. But faith can come and go, sometimes without warning, as Kate Fodor beautifully demonstrates in her extremely funny and moving new play, 100 Saints You Should Know, which is receiving a brilliantly acted production under the exemplary direction of Ethan McSweeny at Playwrights Horizons.

This compelling and thought-provoking piece shows off Fodor's gift for tackling issues big and small and for creating trenchant and often hilarious dialogue. More importantly, it displays her impressive talent as a portraitist. The five characters whose lives intersect in 100 Saints are as well-drawn as one could wish for.

We meet two of them in the evocative first scene: Matthew (Jeremy Shamos), an amiable if distracted priest, and Theresa (Janel Moloney), the 30-something single mother who cleans the rectory. After their initial and seemingly mundane encounter -- which takes place as Theresa scrubs Matthew's toilet -- Fodor crafts two lengthier scenes: Theresa's fumbling conversation with Abby, her unhappy, foul-mouthed teenage daughter (Zoe Kazan), and Matthew's awkward conversation with his staunch Catholic mother, Colleen (Lois Smith), with whom he has temporarily returned to live under circumstances Fodor doesn't reveal until the end of the first act.

While these scenes lead one to believe that the play may simply show off the parallels in these characters' lives, Fodor has the pair re-connect when Theresa comes to pay a surprise visit to Matthew, in part to ask about her own crisis of faith. (The play's title comes from a book Theresa received as a child and barely remembers.) But discussions of theology must be set aside -- only temporarily -- when Abby's encounter with fellow teen Garrett (Will Rogers) goes dramatically awry. This seemingly random event shakes up each of the character's foundations and unveils heretofore unseen facets of their personalities.

As strong as Fodor's writing is, she makes one significant blunder that mars her triumph. Having penned a completely naturalistic play, she suddenly has Matthew break the fourth wall at the end of the first act to explain why he left the church. True, it allows for a rare moment of visual beauty in Rachel Hauck's otherwise semi-drab production, but it's jarring nevertheless. Worse yet, Matthew later repeats all the same information to Theresa, making the earlier scene seem oddly superfluous.

The playwright is blessed to have such a fine director and a top-notch quintet of actors to carry out her vision. Shamos initially appears too understated as Matthew, but his almost lack of affect makes his subsequent cries from the heart that much more effective. Moloney, making her Off-Broadway debut after starring as Donna Moss on NBC's The West Wing, is completely believable as a woman who knows she's failing as a mother, but hasn't yet found the solution. Rogers stays just on the right side of caricature as the socially awkward and emotionally troubled Garrett.

However, the top acting honors go to Kazan and Smith, who lie on opposite ends of the age spectrum. Having dazzled in the New Group's revival of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Kazan further cements her standing as a young actress to watch. She tosses off exquisitely calibrated line readings as the often obnoxious adolescent, yet always makes sure we see the girl's pain and confusion underneath the bravado. (One can argue, however, that Abby is just a little too verbally dexterous for her age.)

Smith, who rarely fails to amaze, adds to her ever-expanding gallery of unhappy mothers with a pitch-perfect rendering of Colleen, a woman who substitutes roasted chicken and small talk for the physical affection and emotional acceptance her son desperately needs.

If there's a slight abruptness to the play's ending, it's nonetheless fitting for a work that doesn't claim to have all the answers to its characters' dilemmas, but is content to raise the right questions and leave them -- and us -- on the path to possible salvation.