'The Exorcist': Theater Review

Manoel Felciano Brooke Shields Harry Groener Emily Yetter The Exorcist H 2012
A restrained chamber drama that convinces neither as horror thriller nor spiritual crisis. 

Playwright John Pielmeier and director John Doyle interpret William Peter Blatty's iconic suspense novel of demonic possession for the stage.

The popular 1973 movie version of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling potboiler The Exorcist, about a young girl inhabited by the devil, may be the most singularly overrated horror film of all time. It was a fundamentally antique morality play tarted up with dirty language when it was still shocking, as well as graphic sound and makeup effects that, while innovative, still boiled down to haunted-house tricks in lieu of metaphoric resonance.

While intelligently approached by all involved, this new pocket version by playwright John Pielmeier (Agnes of God), premiering at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, mostly aspires to negative virtues: avoiding bombast, melodrama and unseemly antics. In short, that means anything that might have animated the creaky material into some semblance of theatrical power.

John Doyle’s signature directorial style is well in evidence, in the spare and economical production, the concentration of action, the asperity of manner. Blatty’s novel was big and so was William Friedkin’s film. Here, in the twenty-first century way, the story is compressed into a bare 90 minutes without intermission, barreling through the plot points like CliffsNotes. The characterizations, never meaty, are each reduced to sketched types, though the professionalism of the players — among them Brooke Shields as the mother — affords all the parts a vigorous sheen.

Most unfortunate are the efforts to add contemporary relevance via easily recognizable references, a form of winking at the audience that gets the reflex laugh, though the reminder of theatrical artifice tends to be fatal to the essential suspension of disbelief the show requires.

Certainly the creators are conscious of how dated the material is, time being long past where Catholic concerns could function as a shared reference point for all audiences (e.g., Going My Way). Sound design here must work overtime, and the offstage voices lip-synched by the young actress in possession (Emily Yetter) are not particularly effective when inevitably compared to the sublime enhanced throatiness of Mercedes McCambridge’s equivalent voiceover work in the film. Nor do Doyle or Pielmeier make much out of the sacramental and ritualistic property of the theater, which could have presented a more fertile opportunity for immediacy.

Horror stories stand or fall as art on the richness of their metaphors, and here, too, the theological arguments, while brisk, lack freshness. The recent production of The Savannah Disputation at the Colony Theatre in Burbank found great brio and originality in the debate between fundamentalists and Catholics, but here there is no palpable sense of inspired challenge in the arguments with the Devil.

It must be noted that the suave gravity of Richard Chamberlain as Father Merrin, redolent of the patrician Catholicism of William F. Buckley, greatly elevates the proceedings whenever he is stage center. One wishes he could have been as witty. 

Venue: The Geffen Playouse, Los Angeles
Cast: Richard Chamberlain, Brooke Shields, David Wilson Barnes, Emily Yetter, Harry Groener, Roslyn Ruff, Manoel Felciano, Tom Nelis, Stephen Bogardus
Playwright: John Pielmeier, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty
Director: John Doyle
Set & costume Designer: Scott Pask
Lighting designer: Jane Cox
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Music: Sir John Tavener
Creative consultant: Teller
Presented by The Geffen Playhouse