Michael Doherty as Jack (front) and the cast of Michael Hollinger's Incorruptible at Philadelphia's Arden Theatre.
(© Mark Garvin)

As the Catholic Church builds its mounting list of indiscretions and scientific pragmatism becomes an increasingly alluring alternative to blind faith — at least for the country's more liberal populations — Michael Hollinger's religious farce Incorruptible finds a willing audience in Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company. Returning to the home of its original 1996 premiere, Incorruptible offers believers and nonbelievers alike a prominent voice for a balanced yet biting commentary on faith and the questionable morality of the religious institutions that cash in on it.

Like its unambiguously ironic title, the play leaves little in the way of metaphorical mystery. Set around 1250 A.D. in Priseaux, France, the story follows a group of struggling monks who have resorted to selling the bones of its local deceased on their newly established black market of Catholic Saints. Shipping them off to distant monasteries, the austere religious leaders pass off the extremities as divine relics with the capacity to work miracles on any passing visitor with a penny and a prayer. Their customers build their religious audiences, the monks replenish their funds for the poor, and everyone goes home happy. After all, moral integrity can do little to fill a poor man's pocket or a starving man's stomach. As the most prudent of all the monks, Brother Martin (played by Ian Merrill Peakes), convincingly argues: "If we can't do good with our faith alone, then faith alone's no good." With this axiom, Hollinger spins the web that the riotous antics to come attempt to untangle — or perhaps tangle even further as the corruption that the most spiritually cynical among us tend to associate with religious institutions proves, in the end, to serve a Godly purpose.

Joining Peakes in the team of religious entrepreneurs are Josh Carpenter, who lends his fresh face to the innocently idealistic Brother Felix; Paul L. Nolan as the veteran abbot Charles; Sam Sherburne, who handily plays the classic lumbering buffoon, Brother Olf; and Michael Doherty as the one-eyed-jester-turned-man-of-God, Jack, who is drafted into the order against his will for both his gravedigging services and unintentional business acumen. The cast also features the charming Alex Keiper as Jack's impatient fiancée Marie, a droll Mary Martello as Marie's critical mother, and Marcia Saunders, who makes a boisterous cameo as Charles' competitive nun sister Agatha.

Matthew Decker directs his company with a tentative hand, falling to an aesthetic that lies uneasily between casual naturalism and exaggerated farce. The actors fluctuate between demonstrative cadences and modern speech patterns without clear comic intent behind either choice — though the anachronistic colloquialisms still land big laughs thanks to the stoically sacred atmosphere provided by set designer James Kronzer and costume designer Lauren Perigard. The monks' plain brown robes blend into the dark, shadowy atmosphere of the dingy monastery, which appears more like a crypt than a place of religious worship.

As Act II kicks the comedic antics into high gear, the absurdist tone comes into sharper focus, as do all of the actors' performances. Doherty, who paints an overzealous portrait of an apathetic miscreant in Act I, brings out his true comedic talents in Act II, as his character's illicit activities with the church ironically reform his unscrupulous ways. Still, the production never quite hums along at the fluid pace necessary to lift Hollinger's sharp and insightfully witty text off the ground. It hits its longest stride in the show's final sprint toward the finish line as elements of both circumstance and fate collide in a symphony of comic disaster and eventual resolution.

This final round of fireworks surrounds the impending arrival of the Pope, Waiting for Godot-style. As the monastery reaches its critical mass of corruption, the monks lure His Holiness to their sanctified grounds with the promise of an "Incorruptible" — a body so holy its post-mortem decay slows, or even halts entirely. It's safe to assume that the church itself does not rank among this class of sacred entities for Hollinger. However, as his simple yet pointed play persuasively contends, there may be something to be said for a little hoodwinking in matters of faith.