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God Only Knows: “Doubt” reviewed

Did Father Flynn (here played by Liev Schreiber) make, in the words of Sister Aloysius (a resolute Amy Ryan), “advances” on 12-year-old Donald Muller?

If you have the answer, I’d like to hear it. Shanley has never come out on one side or the other. (Clever, clever man.) I’ve been trying to figure it out for the past 20 years. Though my answer is usually yes.

My fellow audience members, however, seemed to have made up their minds right from the start, giving Schreiber a hearty round of entrance applause. Yes, he’s a Tony winner (Glengarry Glen Ross) and a multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominee, and of course that’s what Broadway audiences do for stars. (And does anyone remember his performance as a Boston Globe editor who helped expose a massive Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in the Oscar-winning Best Picture Spotlight?) But it feels like those theatergoers have taken Father Flynn’s side even before he starts his sermon, which centers on faith, despair, direction, and doubt. “Doubt,” he warns us, “can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.”

That’s a lot for Sister Aloysius, a school principal in 1964, to go up against. She’s conservative to a fault, dismissing everything from art class (“Waste of time”) to children using ballpoint pens. “Ballpoints make them press down, and when they press down, they write like monkeys,” she reasons. And don’t get her started on “Frosty the Snowman,” which “espouses a pagan believe in music” and “should be banned from the airwaves.” She thinks teachers should make their students “uncomfortable”: “The heart is warm, but your wits must be cold,” she tells the young Sister James (a winning Zoe Kazan), warning her to be suspicious of incidents like nosebleeds. And she is not at all charmed by Father Flynn, who wears his nails long, takes (three!) sugars in his tea, and uses, you guessed it, a ballpoint pen.

He wants to take the kids for ice cream, organize a camping trip for the boys—in other words, connect more with the local community. “We should be friendlier. The children and the parents should see us as members of their family rather than emissaries from Rome,” Father Flynn explains.

Sounds like the notions of an upstart young priest, eager to make his mark in the parish. And the hopelessly old-fashioned, and presumably older, Sister Aloysius sees his ideas as not only disruptive but also destructive. In the script, Shanley describes Flynn as being in his late 30s, and the Sister as in her 50s or 60.

Yet Schreiber and Ryan are more or less the same age, putting Ryan’s character at a greater disadvantage. Remember, the crowd is already in the priest’s corner. (It’s worth noting that Roundabout vet Ryan was a replacement Tyne Daly, who’d been announced and advertised as Aloysius but withdrew, owing to illness, just as previews started.) So Aloysius doesn’t even have the benefit of experience when she accuses Flynn. Even the boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, making the most of a single scene), isn’t convinced of the priest’s guilt.

But Aloysius believes he’s guilty. And that’s all that matters. As Father Flynn explains to the impressionable Sister James, who believes he’s innocent: “The most innocent actions can appear sinister to the poisoned mind.” This production might not be overflowing with tension, but Shanley’s text rings truer than ever. He packs more into 90 minutes than most playwrights do into 150. (This season’s revival of his Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and premiere of his Brooklyn Laundry are proof.) And while he may not provide any answers, he’s trusting enough that we’ll figure it out for ourselves.