Theater Reviews

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Playwrights Horizon, New York
Through Sept. 30

A priest with secret longings. A know-it-all teen. A bitter old woman. A geeky youth. A woman who has lost her faith.

Those are the five all-too-familiar characters in "100 Saints You Should Know." Predictably, it would take nothing less than a miracle to weave these walking cliches into a compelling scenario, and playwright Kate Fodor is no miracle worker.

That isn't to say that the end product is disastrous. But too much of it has a been there, done that feel. In addition, the segues that Fodor employs to bring the quartet together often seem forced and heavy-handed.

The plot actually has two story lines, both about lost souls. One revolves around Father Matthew (Jeremy Shamos), a priest who has been put on leave by his church after unsettling information comes to light about him. He then tells his crotchety mother Colleen (Lois Smith) that he'll be visiting her home for a period.

The tale's other half revolves around Theresa (Janel Moloney), a thirtysomething woman whose free-living past resulted in 16-year-old Abby (Zoe Kazan), who rages against the world in general -- and Mom in particular. As it happens, Theresa is the cleaning woman at the parish from which Matthew has been temporarily dismissed.

Theresa takes it upon herself to pack Abby in the car and drive the two-hour distance to Matthew's mother's house to return a book he left behind. And while she's inadvertently raising Colleen's ire, Abby crosses paths with gawky high schooler Garrett (Will Rogers), Colleen's favorite delivery boy, who's suffering a sexual crisis.

What comes to pass is a scenario with more themes than there are characters. Aside from the generational conflicts and guilt-haunted priest setups, there's an ongoing good vs. evil debate, augmented by the questioning of God's existence, ruminations on culpability, the search for unconditional love, the nature of forgiveness and an examination of man's very essence.

While tackling subjects with no easy answers is ambitious, the result is unfocused. The material fares best when sticking to theological queries. In the play's second act, some moments actually hint at journeying to deeper, far more satisfying territory. But just as quickly the dialogue returns to its paint-by-numbers mind-set.

One need only think back to 2005's Tony-winning "Doubt" to know that a treatise on faith, tradition in the Catholic church and suspicions still can elicit a sublime experience in the theater. Unfortunately, Fodor's inability to get past stereotypes is abetted by pedestrian direction from Ethan McSweeny and an unimaginative turntable set.

The real reason audience members should stick around is the cast, all of whom give it their best shots and then some. Moloney, known to audiences from her lengthy tenure as Donna Moss on NBC's "The West Wing," brings a touching mix of longing, sadness and frustration to her world-weary dreamer. Awkward body movements and nuanced line readings perfectly accent her efforts.

Smith, who has become synonymous with quality work, lives up to her reputation with a three-dimensional portrait of a septuagenarian who is part martyr, part monster and entirely human. She's as heartbreaking as she is hateful, which is no easy feat.

Kazan, who last year stole "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" from Cynthia Nixon, puts an amusingly unique spin on the foul-mouthed, resentful Abby, while Rogers' nerdy turn as Garrett shows that he's got vulnerability down to a science. Finally, as the tortured man of the cloth, Shamos wisely underplays, therefore emerging as an average man who, through no fault of his own, is in over his head. It's an intriguingly shaded turn.

Collectively, the cast works so hard that one continually wishes for material to match their talents. As is, "Saints" simply doesn't answer playgoers' prayers.

100 SAINTS YOU SHOULD KNOW
Presented by Playwrights Horizon
Credits:
Playwright: Kate Fodor
Director: Ethan McSweeny
Set designer: Rachel Hauck
Costume designer: Mimi O'Donnell
Lighting designer: Jane Cox
Sound designer: Matt Hubbs
Cast:
Theresa: Janel Moloney
Father Matthew: Jeremy Shamos
Colleen: Lois Smith
Abby: Zoe Kazan
Garrett: Will Rogers
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