“Doubt: A Parable” review: Amy Ryan and Liev Schreiber are electric on Broadway

“Doubt: A Parable” review: Amy Ryan and Liev Schreiber are electric on Broadway

The revival of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize winning play will stick with you long past the 90-minute runtime .

Walk around New York long enough and you’ll bump into a John Patrick Shanley play. Work from the celebrated playwright and Oscar winner (for Moonstruck’s screenplay) has been everywhere of late. His Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (staring Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott) finished a much talked about Off Broadway revival run at the Lucille Lortel Theater in January, and his latest play, Brooklyn Laundry (starring Saturday Night Live’s Cecily Strong and Dexter’s David Zayas), opened just last week at the Manhattan Theater Club.

That coincidence has now become a trend, with the March 7 opening of another Shanley revival: his Pulitzer Prize (and Tony) winning Doubt: A Parable, at the Todd Haimes Theatre. But this is a very different story from the playwright’s other recently staged works. While Danny and Laundry both centered on couples — in the case of Danny, very, very angry; in the case of Laundry, very, very lonely — trying to find safety and solace in each other’s arms, Doubt forces both the characters and the audience to uncomfortably question basic tenets of faith (and not just the religious kind), innocence, and suspicion.

<p>Joan Marcus</p> Liev Schreiber and Amy Ryan in 'Doubt: A Parable' on Broadway

Joan Marcus

Liev Schreiber and Amy Ryan in 'Doubt: A Parable' on Broadway

The play — originally staged in 2004 and then turned into and Oscar-nominated film in 2008 — takes place in 1964 at St. Nicholas, a fictional Catholic church and school in the Bronx. It begins with the charismatic Father Brendan Flynn (Liev Schreiber) delivering a sermon on... yes, doubt. “What do you do when you’re not sure?” is the play’s first line, and sets the tone for what is to come. Because other doubt is swirling at St. Nicholas, and it comes from the school's principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier.

Played by Amy Ryan, Aloysius is as cold and clinical as they come — even going so far as to go on extended rants about the evils of ballpoint pens and Frosty the Snowman. Aloysius’s very first scene consists of admonishing one of her teachers, Sister James (Zoe Kazan), for being too enthusiastic in her classroom, while also noting disappointedly that “You’d trade anything for a warm look.” Like I said, cold.

But there is a reason Aloysius has called Sister James into her office, and that reason is that she suspects Father Flynn may be making sexual advances on a young student. She suspects, but she has no proof. And therein lies the dilemma — for her, for Sister James (whom she asks to keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary), and for the audience.

<p>Joan Marcus</p> Amy Ryan, Zoe Kazan, and Liev Schreiber in' Doubt: A Parable' on Broadway

Joan Marcus

Amy Ryan, Zoe Kazan, and Liev Schreiber in' Doubt: A Parable' on Broadway

Shanley’s play does a neat trick — introducing the seemingly affable Flynn first and letting the audience connect to his storytelling, and then initially presenting Aloysius in a harsh, seemingly uncompassionate light. As Sister James gets caught in the middle, between Aloysius’ suspicions and Flynn’s protestations of innocence, and does not know what or whom to believe, so is the crowd watching inside the theater. And as the boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) wants to assume the best and not consider the worst — telling the principal “You’re the one forcing people to say these things out loud” — the audience is caught considering their own inclination to sweep unpleasant news under the rug.

It’s heavy stuff, and feels even heavier in the intentionally less than warm and inviting church and school setting. The sets by David Rockwell alternate between Aloysius’s office and a church courtyard, and when combined with Linda Cho’s costumes, Kenneth Posner’s lighting, and the subject matter itself, everything feels dark and grey — like a permanent cloud hovering overhead.

But the action on stage is electric, albeit restrained electricity. Rather than going big by pounding on tables and screaming out lines, the cast builds the tension on the stage through their carefully considered moderation. Kazan deftly manages to convey Sister James' struggle between innocent naivety and the loss of inner light that comes with considering ugly possible truths. “I looked in a mirror and there was darkness where my face should be,” she says at one point. “It frightened me.”

<p>Joan Marcus</p> Amy Ryan and Quincy Tyler Bernstine in 'Doubt: A Parable' on Broadway

Joan Marcus

Amy Ryan and Quincy Tyler Bernstine in 'Doubt: A Parable' on Broadway

As Mrs. Muller, Bernstine never loses her cool, even while shocking the principal with her seemingly cavalier — but much more nuanced — reaction to her son’s possible predicament. Schreiber’s performance is so well calibrated as a man you can’t quite read. Is he worried about covering his tracks or concerned about baseless accusations ruining his career? The actor never leans too far one way or the other.

As the dogged Aloysius, Amy Ryan is a commanding presence in her steadfast pursuit of the truth. Ryan only stepped into the role after Tyne Daly was hospitalized in early February, but she is a marvel inhabiting the part that Cherry Jones originated on Broadway and Meryl Steep took to the screen. The final cat-and-mouse scene between the measured Schreiber and the unbreakable Ryan crackles with intensity as the duo stalk each other on the stage.

Directed by Scott Ellis, Doubt makes every single second count, and even though it may be over at a brisk 90-minutes, the story and performances will stay with you for much, much longer. A–

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