For 'Doubt,' a Certain Magic

In an oft-repeated scene, Adriane Lenox (from left), Brian F. O'Byrne, Cherry Jones and Heather Goldenhersh bask in the audience's appreciation on opening night at the Walter Kerr Theatre in March.
In an oft-repeated scene, Adriane Lenox (from left), Brian F. O'Byrne, Cherry Jones and Heather Goldenhersh bask in the audience's appreciation on opening night at the Walter Kerr Theatre in March. (By Tina Fineberg -- Associated Press)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 10, 2005

NEW YORK First came a riptide of raves. Then, in quick order, a transfer to Broadway, the Pulitzer Prize and a bucketful of Tonys. That elusive fragrance of the theater district -- eau de breakout hit -- now envelops the production ensconced in the Walter Kerr Theatre. Since arriving on West 48th Street in March, the show has broken the Kerr's all-time weekly box office record six times.

All the fuss is being kicked up, mind you, without an orchestra striking a single note. It is a play that is generating the rapturous feedback -- not to mention a bundle of greenbacks. "Doubt" is the work in question, and its success this season has proved a remarkable exemplar of robustness for a long-term Broadway basket case, the contemporary American drama.

In the surprisingly brief space of four months, "Doubt," by playwright and "Moonstruck" screenwriter John Patrick Shanley, is in the black, a condition that most Broadway productions never achieve. In mid-June, its producers announced the play had made back the $2 million spent to get it to Broadway. Now their talk is about how best to widen "Doubt's" reach. Plans are already in the works for a national tour -- another rarity for a non-musical. A London run, naturally, is being discussed, and there's early buzz about a movie.

Other recent American plays have left compelling footprints: "Wit," for one, the story of a professor dying of cancer, and "Proof," about a brilliant and troubled young woman unraveling an intellectual mystery. Each made a respectable splash. But "Doubt" seems poised for deeper impact.

Set in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, the play, alternately funny, absorbing and troubling, traces the bitter confrontation between a popular priest, played by Brian F. O'Byrne, and a hard-nosed nun, portrayed by Cherry Jones, who's convinced he's molesting boys in the school.

Along with superb performances -- Jones and another actress, Adriane Lenox, both won Tonys last month for their roles -- Shanley's skillful balancing of this clash of wills seems to resonate profoundly with audiences. The unanimity of the critics, the shower of prizes, the roaring business at the box office, even the widespread praise on theater message boards all point to something of inordinate significance. There is, in fact, a growing conviction in the theater world that "Doubt" is making the strongest claim in years for a status that routinely eludes the serious American play: as mainstream entertainment.

The proof may come in "Doubt's" Broadway staying power. Conventional theater wisdom has a hit world-premiere play running out of steam faster than a hit musical -- in, at the outside, 18 months to two years. The initial response to "Doubt," its promoters say, suggests it has the potential to test these limits. As Chris Boneau, the show's publicist, puts it, "This is a play that's behaving like a musical."

But don't take his word for it. Others in the theater business with no direct stake in "Doubt's" Broadway success say they recognize the play's unusual appeal. "So many people seem to love it that the whole notion of it as a breakout play is apt," says Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, who secured a ticket while it was running off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club. "I went on my own and paid for it myself," he adds. "I went in large measure because I love Cherry Jones."

Kaiser emerged adoring the play as well. He compares the experience to the love at first sight he felt years ago at the Stephen Sondheim musical "A Little Night Music." "I loved it because I thought it was a very adult play," he says. "The play is not about simple concepts. It's ambiguous, and he's dealing with themes for which there are no easy answers. There's also great joy in great craftsmanship. Almost a magical feeling."

No one is more gratified by the response than Shanley, who at 54 is having his most luminous moment since winning an Oscar for his screenplay for the 1987 "Moonstruck."

"This has crossed over from being of interest to people who are theater enthusiasts to people who are interested in politics, philosophy, religion," the writer says.

He's not engaging in mere speculation. The paragraph about him in the Playbill includes his e-mail address -- . Playgoers of all stripes have written to him, and he faithfully writes back.

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