Doubt Revived by Roundabout Theatre

John Patrick Shanley's Timely Masterpiece

By: - Mar 22, 2024

Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s justly celebrated play, is running at the Roundabout Theatre in New York directed by Scott Ellis. 

Descartes started us with “I think, therefore I am.”   Yet he went on to write “Doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.”  While you don’t have to dig into this pungent phrase to enjoy Shanley's beautifully crafted work, it helps.  Some say the act that follows the end of the stage play is the audience thinking as they leave the theater following the nine-scene drama.  

The only character in the play who thinks in complex dimensions that have to do with ‘another’  is the mother of a gay black boy.  Mrs. Muller has succeeded in getting her son Donald admitted to a Catholic middle school, St. Nicholas. Concerned black mothers scrape together the tuition for these parochial schools.  Donald had been mercilessly bullied in public school.  

Mrs. Muller (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is full of doubts and struggles first and foremost to do what is right for her son. Some of her opinions shock the school principal Sister Aloysius (Amy Ryan), who the playwright forces to grapple with real-life problems like sexual abuse and the life-threatening illness of a family member. Sister Aloysius's awakening is painfully slow.

The set by David Rockwell is hefty. Yet it moves, capturing the concepts of crossfades indicted by the playwright.  Familiar hymns echo as though the space were empty. No curtain separates us from the church, in which Father Brendan Flynn (Liev Schrieber) opens with a sermon articulating his view that doubt can be as strong a community bond as certainty. He takes us from the Descartian realm into the practicalities of everyday life. Later, he recommends taking a knife to a pillow to release feathers. This parable captivates.

“It feels strangely fresh to me,” says actor Schreiber.  “How quick we are to go whole hog into an idea that is unresearched, misinformation, disinformation, heated emotional opinions, and no one is willing to say, ‘I don’t know.’” 

Much is made of the length of Father Flynn’s fingernails. Sister Aloysius, who is out to destroy him, points them out. Long fingernails are not commonly associated with being gay, but Sister Aloysius loads her comments with this inference. Whether or not Father Flynn has committed sexual abuse is one question the audience asks.  In this production, we don’t doubt his asexuality although he warms to Sister James (Zoe Kazan).

Across the globe, citizens are rapidly locking into extreme, unconsidered ideas. This play shakes you out of them.  More than anything, the characters are human and developing. You can't take your eyes off the stage.  Your mind and heart are fully engaged in these brilliant performances.  

Closing April 21.  Tickets here.