Diane Shaffer's "Sacrilege" addresses the burning issue of whether Catholic women should be allowed to be priests. If you regard the church as an international version of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, it's probably fine. If you see the church as having a spiritual dimension over and above its social concerns, the issue istrickier.
Nothing is very tricky in Shaffer's play, which is essentially a feminist screed. Admittedly, she gives the church "equal time" in the second act, offering statistics about the church's overlooked efforts in many areas, including caring for people with AIDS.
A play, however, is not a debate, and much of what Shaffer has her main character (an activist nun) preaching might be better in a letter to Commonweal. In a play, you have to have two forces of equal weight, and Shaffer's churchmen are comic characters, made of straw.
An exception is the cardinal who inspired the nun to enter the church. He is so easily swayed by her rhetoric that he chucks his zuchetta to become a worker priest in Appalachia.
When we first meet Sister Grace, she is practicing tai chi in Washington Square, warily observed by two street toughs. One of them will die of a drug overdose in her arms, the other will become a priest.
When Grace refuses to curtail her activism organizing rallies in Central Park, appearing on Phil Donahue the Vatican tries to expel her from her order. It might have been more interesting if she had been excommunicated. Then she could have become Episcopalian and quieted down.
Director Don Scardino has correctly perceived that the play is about scoring points which may be why the characters so often address us directly, like debaters. This is particularly true of Ellen Burstyn, as Grace.
Savvy as she is, she cannot escape the pitfall of the role, which is its tiresome one-upmanship. Burstyn often ends the arguments she invariably wins with a mischievous smile, as if this were a sitcom.
In the final scenes, she generates radiant heat as Grace faces her bosses down. If only this energy had been expended on "Saint Joan" (though even in Shaw's play you would want a less grating, flat voice).
Giancarlo Esposito exerts great charm in the not-very-fleshed-out role of the thug turned priest, Herb Foster is engaging as Grace's mentor the cardinal, and Brian Tarantina is very convincing as the drug addict. Reno Roop and Frank Raiter are sweet as the buffoonish clergy.
The play is handsomely designed. It begins with "Messiah" as written by Handel and ends with a soft-rock version. If you don't think that's sacrilege, you might like the play.
Imagine Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan" without the jokes, updated and down-written, and you'd have some idea of Diane Shaffer's quite intriguing play "Sacrilege," which opened last night at the Belasco Theater.
No, the heroine is not burnt at the stake, and no Dauphin is crowned in Rheims Cathedral, but there is an idealistic woman in conflict with the Church, who ends up rather stickily defending herself in an ecclesiastical conclave.
The woman is a nun, Sister Grace (Ellen Burstyn), and she wants to be ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church. And, speaking very much as a layman, or layperson, her arguments sound to me as incontrovertible as such arguments always have.
Personally, unlike Groucho Marx, were I a woman I wouldn't want to belong to any club that didn't want me, but to persons of Sister Grace's faith and persuasion of the Catholic Church is infinitely more than a club. It is a way of life, even a way of death.
We first meet Grace practicing tai chi in a New York City park - amid all the drug dealers and chess players, among them Ramon (Giancarlo Esposito) and Crackerjack (Brian Tarantina).
Ramon tries to steal money from Grace, who neatly thwarts his plan by giving it to him. She recognizes his priestly virtues, nurtures them, and eventually Ramon is ordained.
But not Grace. And there's the rub, and the substance of the play. Grace is a rebel - she was one of the Father Berrigan protest tribe - and confronts Church dogma on women priests, abortion, celibacy and birth control.
It seems that she even believes in some kind of reincarnation, which is splendid for a Buddhist but must sit oddly on the cowl of a Catholic nun. Not that Grace wears a cowl.
A thorn in the church's flesh, Grace holds forth on the Phil Donahue show and gives interviews to the Village Voice. Inevitably she is called to account by the Vatican, and finds herself in opposition to a cardinal (Herb Foster) who was her mentor.
As Grace, Burstyn shows a well-scrubbed radiance and robust sense of Christian fellowship, and a very capable Foster, who inherited the role from first John Forsythe and later Kevin McCarthy, is briskly ununctuous as the cardinal.
The two most commanding and memorable performances, however, come from a nervy, explosive Esposito as the prodigal son priest, and a burnt-out Tarantina as his best buddy, a hard-case dropout who finally ODs.
Don Scardino's staging moves a little jerkily - rather like the play itself - even though John Arnone's admirably versatile and serviceable set is a thing of surprising and constant beauty.
Shaffer's writing lacks a great deal in immediacy and eloquence, and the play ends on a note altogether too glib and cute. Yet she offers arguments of obvious urgency to Catholics - even if they do not find them especially fresh. And surely this drama of a modern church martyr, even if the lady's not for burning, has a wider appeal.
For ultimately, Shaffer asks, though all of Christ's disciples were men, why, apart from the historic value of ritual, shouldn't women be ordained here and now? And the larger question is: How viable is the past for the present.
Finally how many plays raise matters - even for the agnostic and secular - this worthwhile?
Sister Grace (Ellen Burstyn) is one dynamite nun, which is fine with her superiors in the Roman Catholic Church as long as she sticks to her duties as the head of the Houston Street Crisis Center in SoHo. Drug pushers, would-be muggers, petty thieves and lapsed Catholics never have the last word when she's around. She has an answer for everything, including a lot of questions the church would prefer that nobody asked.
Ever since her association with the Rev. Daniel Berrigan's protests against the Vietnam War, Sister Grace has been speaking out on matters the church considers controversial. Most recently: sex education in parochial schools and the distribution of condoms -- not just any condoms, but inexpensive condoms that have, according to her, thicker latex than the pricier brands.
She's unstinting in her support of good causes, of candlelight vigils that attract celebrities like Madonna. Talk show hosts adore her as the nun who persists in issuing unnunlike pronouncements. She's not only in love with her calling, but she also possesses a natural gift for manipulating the media.
At the start of Diane Shaffer's "Sacrilege," the sincerely argumentative drama that opened last night at the Belasco Theater, Sister Grace seems finally to have gone too far. We are told that even Pope John Paul II has read and "is deeply disturbed" by her latest bombshell: a Village Voice interview in which she calls for the abolition of "sexual apartheid" within the church. She's demanding that women be admitted to the priesthood.
You get the feeling that the Pope is at the end of his tether. What next? Priests who want to become nuns?
The Pope is so upset that he has dispatched his closest adviser, Cardinal King (Herb Foster), to chastise Sister Grace. Complicating the situation is the large coincidence that the Cardinal is the former parish priest who, many years ago, allowed her to be his altar girl. He encouraged her devotion to the church, possibly even her dreams of becoming a priest.
Now ask yourself: should the church welcome women into the priesthood? Do you believe, with Sister Grace, that "the nature of God transcends the duality of sex?"
Or do you side with Cardinal King, who says that the church should be "immune to time," that is, unaffected by "social, cultural or political trends," meaning, in this case, today's feminist movement? It helps to have a point of view.
In "Sacrilege," Sister Grace gets all the best lines. When it's pointed out to her that women were not present at the Last Supper, her answer is a snappy: "No, they only served it." Sister Grace has more substantial arguments than that, including the suggestion that in the church's early years women served alongside men. It wasn't until later that they became second-class citizens as the result of rules written by men. Even today, she says, "there is no formally declared doctrine stating that women can't be priests."
"Sacrilege" is a 1990's update on an old-fashioned problem play. In the days before the theater became so economically elitist, it could have found an audience among people who today stay home and watch problem teleplays.
It has a carefully constructed plot that involves not only Sister Grace's battle with the hierarchy but also her intense relationship with Ramon (Giancarlo Esposito), whom she first meets in Washington Square Park one dawn. She's doing her tai chi exercises and he's going through her knapsack. Ramon is a foul-mouthed but sensitive young con artist whom she guides into the priesthood, even as her own ambitions are dashed and her faith is tried.
The play has its share of big scenes that seem more obligatory than dramatically affecting. There's a moment when Sister Grace, against her better judgment, is moved to give last rites to a dying man because a priest can't be summoned in time. It's a decision that will later be her undoing. There's another big moment when, much like an acting teacher, she coaches Ramon on how to reach his inner being as he delivers his first homily. The result is a passionate, argot-filled sermon of a kind that will insure his success as shepherd to the underprivileged.
Ms. Shaffer's script, her first produced work, has the efficiency of something written not for the stage but for television. The ideas are presented simply and with textbook clarity. The dialogue is brisk. Characters are drawn in such blunt outlines that you know everything about them from the beginning. They don't invite analyses that would invade their psychosexual natures. They mean exactly what they say. Ambiguity of motive doesn't exist.
In problem plays of this sort, characters aren't revealed by events. Instead they recognize those events and announce their reactions to them. Subtlety and surprise are in short supply.
Ms. Burstyn gives a good, hefty performance as the driven if not very complex Sister Grace. Her technical skill makes up for much of the thinness of the writing. Mr. Esposito, who has played variations on Ramon-as-street-kid many times, is also convincing as the dedicated priest he becomes. Mr. Foster's performance is limited by the dimensions of the character as written. Cardinal King is never very persuasive as a sophisticated Vatican trouble-shooter. When he later reveals his special bond to Sister Grace, the character is unbelievable, almost wimpish.
Don Scardino, the director, has given "Sacrilege" a decently theatrical production. John Arnone's handsome unit and the lighting by Howell Binkley have Broadway class. Yet you never escape the suspicion that "Sacrilege" might as easily have been filmed, preferably in the unending close-ups that often make television drama look like comic books for people who don't want to read.
It's the rare American playwright who can mix the political and the personal in such a way as to make for compelling theater, and it will be instructive to compare American writer Diane Shaffer's well-intentioned but dead-in-the-water play-writing debut, "Sacrilege," at the Belasco, with British author David Hare's "Racing Demon," already acclaimed, having its Broadway premiere at Lincoln Center Theater. Both plays deal with challenges to the old order and the ways in which institutionalized religion is responding to the changing needs of the flock.
"Sacrilege" caught the attention of Ellen Burstyn, and it's unlikely the play would have come so far without the support of a star. She plays Sister Grace, a nun who has devoted her life to serving the Sisters of Charity as director of the Houston Street Crisis Center but who is convinced that her true calling is the priesthood.
Sister Grace takes her cause to the streets, to the Village Voice, to Donahue -- to anyone who will hear her. She infuriates the Pope, who dispatches an emissary in the person of Cardinal King (Herb Foster) -- the parish priest who originally inspired her to devote her life to God -- to shut her up. She will not be shut up. Among her big successes is Ramon (Giancarlo Esposito), a chess hustler-turned-acolyte who eventually becomes the priest Sister Grace cannot.
Earnest as all get out and full of observations with which many will agree, "Sacrilege" is nevertheless the work of an amateur. Cast mostly as a series of dialogues between mouthpieces whose positions are clear from the outset, the play is, well, preachy, not to mention repetitive and, in the end, lifeless. The flat staging by Don Scardino, typically one of our most resourceful directors, merely underscores that. It's a goner, and unquestionably within short order.
I wish that weren't the case, because "Sacrilege" takes on a timely subject with considerable restraint. Just before disenfranchising his star pupil, the cardinal makes an impassioned speech about the role of the Church as worldwide human rights advocate; for all its didacticism, this is no diatribe. But it's no play, either, and Burstyn's uninflected delivery of one predictable speech after another grows tiresome early on. The final scenes are frankly preposterous, though no more so than most of what has come before.
Despite all that, "Sacrilege" sometimes moved me to tears. After all, how many plays take on such loaded issues? Even bad art can stir people (to action as well as anger, as was evidenced in the talk among audience members at intermission). The sacrilege referred to in the title, Grace explains, is the sin of sexism, and "the contamination filters down"-- a compelling truth.
"Sacrilege" won't change anyone's mind, but at least the arguments are being aired. I only wish they were given a surer dramatic context. An inquisition scene is staged complete with looming shadows, and another in which Ramon's best friend (Brian Tarantina) dies of a drug overdose closes the first act with a Pieta re-creation. With its high rows of votive candles in blank walls marked by dark square windows, John Arnone's stark all-purpose medieval-modern setting is Swiss-cheesy. Howell Binkley's lighting and Alvin Colt's costumes are also pretty basic.
Still, Foster, a last-minute replacement for John Forsythe, is persuasive as the cardinal, and Esposito plays Ramon with sweet conviction -- amazing since his character has no correlative in the real world. Burstyn is oddly uncomfortable in the role of Grace; through most of the play, there's no passion in evidence, though in that department she's been severely shortchanged by the author. We know very little about Grace's interior life.
"Sacrilege" is full of pronouncements. It's a soulful polemic. It's not much of a play.