New York stage looks to the Heavens

A cadre of Off-Broadway productions tackles religious topics

Buy a ticket to an Off-Broadway show this fall and you might find yourself feeling impelled to say 'Amen' or break out the prayer shawl.

This season, religion and theology are showing up onstage with some frequency, adding timely fodder to the current interest in religion in America.

Current events inform some of the productions, two of which deal with the abuse of children by clergy. But the plays range from a 15th-century piece featuring a grieving widower's debate with Death to a modern comedy about tapping more deeply into the faith of one's fathers. There's also a musical version of the book "Children's Letters to God," and even comedian Dame Edna invokes Jesus in her new Broadway show. While the timing of these shows appears coincidental, they each touch on issues in public thought.

Religion and theater have often intersected, whether subtly - as with Shakespeare - or more overtly - with Tony Kushner and his 1980s "Angels in America" Parts I and II. The current batch of playwrights say they are exploring subjects that interest them, addressing their own questions about institutions or practices.

The plays - though impossible to lump into a single category - tend to highlight the idea that divisions can exist not only between believers and nonbelievers, but among the devout themselves. They raise questions that prompt more discussion, such as: How friendly should priests become with community members? What does it mean to be an observant Jew?

Daniel Goldfarb's play "Modern Orthodox" began as an exploration of Orthodox Judaism. While his own practices derived from the same roots as his Orthodox acquaintances, he was intrigued by how these Jews still looked and acted in ways so different from himself. The resulting play deals in a humorous, subtle, and sometimes crass way with the awakening of a Jewish couple to the traditions of the more devout.

"[I thought] that I was going to be writing a play about the difference between the secular community and religious community, like the odd couple with a secular Jew and a religious Jew kind of thing ... but I think the play is really now more about faith," says Mr. Goldfarb.

"The play is not about them deciding they believe in God at the end," he adds, "but it's [about] slowly opening the door to something they'd closed off a long time ago."

For the most part, these productions are more thought-provoking than preachy. Their explorations of God and the human condition tend to highlight how religion is lived in the world, rather than offer solid answers to probing philosophical questions.

When religion is involved, some theatergoers buy tickets because a work speaks directly to elements of their own faith, while others simply want stories that ponder the mysteries of existence.

"If we shift the conversation slightly from religion to the mystical or the spiritual in an Off-Broadway context, suddenly it's not about a name but about an impulse. It's not naming Yahweh, or Jesus, or Buddha, it's just an experience or a shiver you get at the base of your spine," says Brian Kulick, artistic director at the Classic Stage Company, which is currently staging "Death and the Ploughman," a prose piece written originally in German in 1401.

That play ends with a long prayer to God by the widowed farm laborer, which Mr. Kulick says frequently reduces to tears even those with little interest in specific religion.

By contrast, a sermon is used to draw people into the critically praised "Doubt," a drama set in the 1960s about a nun who suspects a priest of inappropriate behavior with a male student. Father Flynn, the priest in question, intones a moving sermon in the play's opening moments about the loneliness of a person undergoing a crisis of faith.

"What do you do when you're not sure? That's the topic of my sermon today. You look for God's direction and can't find it," he says.

That sermon - deftly crafted by Oscar-winning "Moonstruck" screenwriter and playwright John Patrick Shanley - lays the groundwork for the search for truth that drives the play.

The priest concludes his remarks with: "Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone."

Mr. Shanley has said he wrote the piece in part because of a case of abuse in his own family - and his belief, after reflecting on recent high-profile incidents, that many of the whistle-blowers had to be nuns. A former Catholic school student, Shanley dedicates the play "to the many orders of Catholic nuns who devoted their lives to serving others.... Though they have been much maligned and ridiculed, who among us has been so generous?"

Another work with a similar theme is "Sin (A Cardinal Deposed)." It is the result of playwright Michael Murphy surfing the Internet and coming across the depositions of Cardinal Bernard Law after revelations of sexual abuse of children by priests in his charge in the Boston area.

Besides being riveting reading, says Mr. Murphy, the material elicits comparisons between the role religion plays in providing guidance for behavior and the way the messengers behaved themselves.

His sober but engaging work uses the cardinal's own words - interspersed with accounts from churchgoers - to explain how abusive priests were disciplined (or not, depending on one's perspective). In one exchange - drawn from the transcripts - an attorney presses Cardinal Law to distinguish a mortal sin from one that is unpardonable.

When asked directly, Law responds that raping a child is not an unpardonable sin.

"I think people want to believe there's a good reason Cardinal Law made the decisions he made," says Murphy, explaining that theatergoers often lean forward to hear the answer when the question is asked.

"I feel like the audience wants to hear why Law made the decisions," he says, "and they want to go, 'OK, it's difficult, but I see why you did that.' I think you come out of that realizing that there aren't very good answers."

While audiences leave these shows with many ideas to ponder, they aren't the only ones who might come away from the experience transformed.

For Goldfarb, the experience of writing "Modern Orthodox" helped him grow. "I learned something about myself," he says. "Because I went in [to the writing of the play] with some of Ben's prejudices [against Orthodox Judaism], and I left the play without them."

'Doubt' is at the Manhattan Theatre Club through Jan. 30. 'Modern Orthodox' opens Dec. 6 at Dodger Stages. 'Death and the Ploughman' is at the Classic Stage Company through Dec. 12. 'Sin (A Cardinal Deposed)' is at Theatre Row/Clurman Theatre through Saturday.

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