Reviews

Review: Doubt Returns to Broadway in a Solid Revival

Amy Ryan, Liev Schreiber, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, and Zoe Kazan star in the Roundabout Theatre Company production.

Amy Ryan, Zoe Kazan, Liev Schreiber star in the Broadway revival of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, directed by Scott Ellis, for Roundabout Theatre Company at the Todd Haimes Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

We’re blessed to live in a country in which accusations are not taken as definitive proof — at least in the criminal justice system. The burden is on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, rather than on the accused to prove their innocence. Of course, this means that some criminals, clever enough to cover their tracks, will remain free and continue to offend. And that seems to be what one nun is determined to prevent, by any means necessary, in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, now receiving a solid revival from Roundabout Theatre Company at its recently renamed Todd Haimes Theatre.

Sister Aloysius (Amy Ryan) is the principal of St. Nicholas, a Catholic high school in the Bronx. A strict disciplinarian with a clear sense of how things ought to be run, she is suspicious of the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council (the year is 1964) and by extension of Father Flynn (Liev Schreiber), the touchy-feely priest who has recently landed at the congregation. When a younger nun, Sister James (Zoe Kazan radiating naive innocence), reports that she saw 12-year-old Donald Muller, the school’s first and only Black student, emerge from a private meeting with Father Flynn with the smell of alcohol on his breath, Sister Aloysius’s worst fears seem to be confirmed. She takes it as her mission to protect Donald and every other child at St. Nicholas by removing Father Flynn, and she is willing to bend her own sacred rules to get her way.

Doubt won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and its original production played for over a year on Broadway. It remains one of the most important dramas of this century due to Shanley’s shrewd and nuanced portrayal of power: Yes, it shows how a male in a patriarchal institution can pull rank in an attempt to silence a female critic; but it’s also the story of how, like an expert judo player, that woman can leverage her opponent’s power to flip him on his back. It’s a maneuver that requires supreme confidence. Flinch and you’ll lose.

Liev Schreiber plays Father Flynn, and Amy Ryan plays Sister Aloysius in the Broadway revival of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, directed by Scott Ellis, for Roundabout Theatre Company at the Todd Haimes Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

Appropriately, Ryan brings a businesslike quality to Sister Aloysius. Her line deliveries are terse and dry, conveying the authority of a school administrator who has seen it all and has no time to waste on sentiment. It’s a strong choice for an actor who has only recently stepped into the production (Ryan joined the cast during previews, replacing Tyne Daly who withdrew for health reasons). Unexpectedly, she endows Sister Aloysius Beauvier with a patrician accent that is certain to delight the gays with its proximity to a that of a certain Bouvier. It injects an element of class that further illuminates her adherence to tradition and her hostility toward the working-class Father Flynn.

Handsome and effortlessly charming, Schreiber is similarly restrained in his performance. There’s no fire and brimstone in his sermons, nor should there be from a priest so invested in presenting a friendlier face of the church. His explanation of the Muller incident (that he caught Donald drinking communion wine but decided to let him off with a warning lest he further isolate the school’s only Black student) seems eminently plausible. It makes Father Flynn look reasonable and even admirable. Of course, the devil always does, and this explanation in no way dissuades Sister Aloysius from her crusade.

Amy Ryan plays Sister Aloysius, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine plays Mrs. Muller in the Broadway revival of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, directed by Scott Ellis, for Roundabout Theatre Company at the Todd Haimes Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

The only character capable of giving her pause is Mrs. Muller, played with clear eyes and simple fortitude by Quincy Tyler Bernstine, one of the great stage actors of our era making what is remarkably only her sophomore Broadway appearance. When she calls Donald’s mother into her office, Sister Aloysius expects to gain an ally. Instead, she finds a woman who is hellbent on getting her son to graduation, into a decent high school, and hopefully on to university. “It’s just till June,” she replies to Sister Aloysius, her inflection the vocal equivalent of a resolutely slammed door. This is not the case of a mother turning a blind eye to abuse. She understands that her son’s only chance at happiness (and honestly, survival) is the narrow pathway through this school into the middle class. A Black woman in 1960s America, she knows that everything has a price, and this is one she is willing to pay — especially since Sister Aloysius has no hard evidence. The Inquisition is a luxury for rich people and nuns.

Having directed the cast to these honest and unpretentious performances, Scott Ellis does nothing to reinterpret the way we see and hear Doubt. David Rockwell’s gliding, twirling set facilitates quick scene transitions set to the sound of boy sopranos (sound by Mikaal Sulaiman, who does offer an impressive 360 soundscape in the Haimes). Costume designer Linda Cho delivers austere clerical garb. Kenneth Posner’s lighting creates the indoor-outdoor world of the play, with light gorgeously streaming in from high windows in the opening tableau. It’s all first-rate, but none of it reinvents the wheel — and that’s OK.

We’ve come to expect Broadway revivals to renovate known properties, either through design or questionable script revisions. But there’s no such need with Doubt. The blustering certainty of the Iraq invasion that underscored the original run has given way to Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts,” the BELIEVE *clap* ALL *clap* WOMEN certainty of #MeToo, and dozens of new revelations of pedophile priests. Doubt is still one of the essential dramas of our time, with a story that is more relevant than ever.

 

 

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