Monday, December 15, 2008

The Play's the Thing

Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, based on his play
Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
Opens December 12, 2008

Streep and Hoffman in Doubt (photo: Andrew Schwartz/Miramax Films)
Rife with ambiguity, the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play Doubt was one of the most exhilarating theatrical experiences in recent years, bolstered not only by John Patrick Shanley’s deft dialogue, sharply-drawn characters and creation of a morally complex world mirroring our own, but also by the emotionally-charged, unforgettable performances by a quartet of extraordinary actors: Cherry Jones, Brian F. O’Byrne, Heather Goldenhersh and Adriane Lenox.

Now that Shanley’s own adaptation of his play–which he also directed–comes to the screen as prime Oscar bait with award-winning movie stars, it’s instructive to note that nearly everything that made the play so memorable in its Manhattan Theater Club and Broadway incarnations is conspicuously absent.

Doubt revolves around Sister Aloysius, principal of the Bronx’s St. Nicholas School; the bogeywoman of schoolchildren’s nightmares, Sister Aloysius takes everyone to task for the slightest perceived indiscretion, whether fellow nuns, students or parish priests. One of the latter, Father Flynn, is in her sights since she thinks he’s engaging in inappropriate conduct with Donald Muller, a black altar boy and student in Sister James’ classroom. Rounding out the quartet is Donald’s mother, Mrs. Muller, who meets Sister Aloysius for a talk about her son.

On stage, Doubt was as thrilling as any first-rate edge-of-your-seat mystery, as the give-and-take among these characters is performed with the artful balance of great chamber-music ensembles. Shanley’s dazzling conceit is constructed with canny clarity: he keeps the focus shifting so that a viewer is never entirely comfortable believing either Sister Aloysius’ accusations against Father Flynn or the possibility that he’s a victim of circumstance. And the play’s devastating ending–Sister Aloysius’ final, repeated line both underscoring and undercutting what’s gone before–still rings in the ear, especially as spoken by Cherry Jones in her intelligently wrought portrayal.

The movie Doubt jettisons this psychological acuity to show what it was like to attend a Bronx Catholic school in 1964. As a sociological study, Shanley’s movie certainly has interest, populated as it is with many characters only referred to in the play: students, the congregation, other nuns, priests, and school and parish workers. But that’s no substitute for the moral conundrums that Shanley the playwright brought to the stage with such exceptional grace and lucidity.

The movie’s bluntness is irreconcilable with the grey areas it means to penetrate. In the play, when Mrs. Muller comes to Sister Aloysius’ office, the nun initially doesn’t notice her arrival because she’s listening to a transistor radio confiscated from a student. In the movie, Shanley actually shows her take the radio away from an unlucky kid in the classroom, which is good for a cheap laugh but adds nothing substantial to the play’s reverberating reference to it.

In this context, the dramatic showdowns between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn are far more “stagebound” than in the play, mainly due to Shanley’s competent but uninspired direction. Primarily consisting of alternating close-ups—with enough randomly-chosen tilted camera angles and moving camerawork thrown in to draw undue attention to themselves—Shanley hasn’t appreciably improved in that area since his lackluster 1989 debut, Joe vs. the Volcano (at least he’s now working with better material and actors).

The performances are generally satisfactory, although Amy Adams brings minimal shading to naive, innocent Sister James, played onstage with wonderful charm and sympathy by Heather Goldenhersh. Viola Davis dives right into the phlegmy, scene-stealing Mrs. Muller, easily equaling Adriane Lenox’s Tony-winning portrayal. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s capable Father Flynn has a nicely understated manner, even if he doesn’t deliver the priest’s symbolic sermons–written by Shanley as obvious showstoppers–with the necessary bravado.

Lastly, Meryl Streep’s Sister Aloysius swings wildly between utmost subtlety and broad, horror-movie monstrousness. She can’t entirely keep her tendency to ham it up in check, and at the end, her over-emoting during those unbearably moving closing lines renders them anticlimactic. Of course, since her director allowed her to do it, there’s no doubt that he is to blame for this underwhelming adaptation of his own riveting, classic play.

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