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Review: In Vatican Falls, Sexual Abuse Survivors Wage War on the Catholic Church

Ace Young stars in Frank J. Avella's action-adventure drama.

James Gracia and Edward L. Simon star in Frank J. Avella's Vatican Falls, directed by Avella and Carlotta Brentan, at the Tank.
(© Ashley Garrett)

Romans 12:19 instructs, "Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God," which sounds like a clever way bad people convince their victims that they'll one day see justice. Good thing Catholics don't read the Bible, thus providing the basis for Vatican Falls, Frank J. Avella's revenge fantasy for victims of priestly sexual abuse, now making its world premiere at the Tank. Ambitious, imaginative, and totally bizarre, it offers several surprises for the audience, not all of them great.

We think we see where Vatican Falls is going from the earliest scene, which introduces us to Vi (Tucker Aust), Charlie (Danny Hilt), and Matt (Jeremiah Clapp), members of the Boston chapter of Survivors of Catholic Abuse Refuge (or SCAR). We brace for two-and-a-half hours of weepy monologues about the dreadful abuse these men suffered as boys at the hands of trusted clergymen.

As they meet over Dunkin', their compatriot Riccardo (Ace Young) shares espresso and cannoli with Claudia (Carlotta Brentan), an attractive young Vatican employee. Riccardo is in Rome to get the ball rolling on SCAR's master plan, which involves cybercrime, kidnapping, and spectacular acts of violence committed against the Roman Catholic Church. Suddenly, this support group reveals itself for what it truly is: a terrorist cell.

And considering the crimes they're avenging, it's easy to root for the terrorists, even if their plans don't seem entirely thought-out. Claudia is something of a double agent. They are also working with a source who goes by the code name La Farfalla (Jacopo Costantini). The Italian characters tend to speak in third person with an irritating mixture of English and Italian: "I cannot imagine pain…la confusione…Is terribile...Is good you tell Claudia," she remarks when Riccardo opens up about his history of abuse. It's the first indication that this play is un po' di mortadella.

Carlotta Brentan directs Vatican Falls and plays Claudia, and Ace Young plays Ricardo.
(© Ashley Garrett)

At least Vatican Falls has a fascinating villain in the form of Father David, whom Edward L. Simon endows with a youthful innocence that helps us understand how the priest justified his own abhorrent behavior: "I was practically a boy myself," the priest claims, while also assuming the role of this family's protector. Riccardo's widower mother, Teresa (an overwrought Alice Barrett-Mitchell), certainly treats him like the man of the house, trusting him completely. We grasp the terrible price of that blind faith through the silent figure of Riccardo's younger brother, Peter (James Gracia, whose watchful eyes constitute the most moving performance of the evening).

More in line with Avella's action movie script is an infernal prelate referred to only as "Monsignor," whom Ryan Wright plays like a snooty maître d' given power over the Vatican bank. As SCAR's fabulously sassy and frighteningly wrathful ringleader, Aust plays Vi as a high-heeled angel of death. Mercifully offering some comic relief, Hilt is very funny as a Masshole Mrs. Malaprop: "I don't feel like gettin' waterballooned by the feds," he tells his co-conspirators, obviously referring to a different enhanced interrogation technique but conjuring a delightful image nonetheless.

Young, a former American Idol contestant who has appeared on Broadway in Hair and Grease, gives an emotionally committed performance as a man deeply troubled by his past and uncertain about his future. He displays his lovely singing voice in the second act number "Sunday Mourning," which stops the show, not because it's so good but because it literally does nothing to move the plot forward. It feels a bit like when Bette Midler starts singing in Hocus Pocus 2 — one suspects that the song is in the contract.

Ace Young stars in Frank J. Avella's Vatican Falls, directed by Avella and Carlotta Brentan, at the Tank.
(© Ashley Garrett)

That moment is so jarring because it is out-of-step with Avella's production (the playwright co-directed with Brentan), which jump-cuts between short cinematic scenes taking place across years and continents. Tony DiBernardo's platform set provides levels and multiple configurations, allowing the performers to instantly transport us to any space. Shirlee Idzakovich's costumes get the job done (she has particular fun with Vi), while Zëk Stewart's sound design and David Shocket's lighting (a tower of LEDs becomes a stained-glass window) further aid our imaginations. Through simple theatricality, Avella mostly pulls it off — however, by the time we see an actor miming electrocution (he writhes in pain as the lights flick on and off), we suspect that Avella's Hollywood blockbuster ambition has crashed up against the physical and economic limitations of off-off-Broadway.

Still, one must admire Avella for writing a play about this subject that doesn't just wallow in victimhood. In their own highly fantastical way, these characters are standing up for themselves and taking action. It may not be very Christian, but it is undeniably dramatic.