Musicals may make the money, but Broadway justifies itself with dramas. Whenever a couple of months go by without turning up a successful play, the profession begins to experience a rising fear of frivolity. The long-running "Sugar Babies" and the "42nd Streets," the "Sophisticated Ladies" and the "Barnums" are grand popular entertainments, but they're somehow a little more defensible if there's also an "Amadeus" or a "Fifth of July" on the boards to prove that Broadway is not entirely bubble-headed.
Hence, the annual preoccupation with finding the Great American Play or the Good American Play, or just the New American Play. Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart" seems to be this year's candidate for the top honors. The winner of a Pulitzer Prize before it opened on Broadway (at the Golden Theatre) and the recipient of largely rapturous notices from the New York critics, it is a warm work of certain pleasures, not the least of which is Henley's ability to juggle the macabre and the comic. But still, this Gothic tale of three sisters in Hazelhurst, Miss., coping with more adversity than even Nicholas Nickleby, dwells among the dramatic foothills. Although it has no end of scenes, unerring in their accuracy and pungent with rollicking humor, it tends to be notable mainly for its texture, not its cumulative power.
Actually, the playwright's method is to treat a whole range of mishaps as equally consequential. Forgetting a birthday is as rife with consequences in this family as is shooting your husband in the belly, and the emotions provoked by the oversight are likely to be as copious as those engendered by pistol shot. Henley may be right; when you're having a "bad day," as these three sisters are, everything is fraught with drama. Nonetheless, if there is no lack of incidents, there is no overriding event, either. For all its ups and downs, "Crimes of the Heart" unfolds the way honey pours.
I suspect that shortcoming will show up in subsequent productions. For the time being, the play is acted with moment-to-moment bravura by three superb actresses -- Lizbeth Mackay, Mary Beth Hurt and Mia Dillon -- and their utter conviction, as they careen from girlish laughter to bewildered sobs, carries the evening to triumph. The laughter and the sobs, in fact, sometimes get short-circuited, as they do in life, and in one of the play's surest moments, the three sisters greet with cascades of mirth the somber news that Ole Granddad has lapsed into a coma. "Oh, good," sighs one of them, once the uncontrollable laughter has subsided and her conscience has gained the upper hand, "now I feel bad!"
Granddad is only one of the day's crosses. Lenny (Mackay), a teary fussbudget with a shrunken ovary, has become convinced on this, her 30th birthday, that no man will ever have anything to do with her. Babe (Dillon) has shot her husband in the gut, explaining with the full force of her touchingly limited intellect that "I just didn't like his looks." And Meg (Hurt), the town hussy before she left for a singing career in California, has come back home to deal with the assorted crises, plus one of her own: Her career never got off the ground.
Billy Boy, the family horse, has been struck dead by lightning. A bossy cousin (Sharon Ullrick) keeps bursting into the family kitchen with pious advice and smug platitudes. And then, there's the lingering heritage of Mama, who merited nationwide newspaper headlines a few years back when she hanged herself and the family cat in the cellar.
The chief order of business would seem to be how to keep Babe out of jail, a dubious prospect rendered even more iffy by the existence of a packet of photos, which graphically depict her affections for a 15-year-old black youth. But as the catastrophes pile up, almost like cars rear-ending on the freeway, Henley is really showing us how these three sisters come to exorcise the family skeletons and to embrace their own glorious eccentricities.
The play's very real accomplishment is that it finds truth in these oddballs and makes them perfectly lovable in their excesses. They may be confronted with cosmic absurdity, but they live in a very real world of flowered wallpaper, lemonade pitchers and nagging phone calls. Like us all, they shrug off calamity, only to get hung up on the pettiest of irritations. But despite their irrational scapegoats and improbable ambitions, they have a sense of self-worth, however garbled, that ultimately prevents them from crying "uncle." In Henley's cockeyed but buoyant universe, Babe may stick her head in the oven in a surge of despair. That's also where she will have the saving revelation that will allow her minutes later to bite into a slab of birthday cake with childish glee.
Under Melvin Bernhardt's direction, the cast responds to the flavorsome text, like bees to honeysuckle. And two of the performances are absolutely perfect. As the bashful lawyer, who has been hired to get Babe off the hook, Peter MacNicol floods Henley's often understated dialogue with waves of nuance. Explaining his growing affection for Babe with a single line -- "I once bought a pound cake from her" -- the actor also succeeds in giving us a dozen unspoken reasons as well. His affection for Babe is understandable. As Dillon acts her, she is a baby doll with dimples, who can't tell "spades from the little puppy dog feet" on playing cards, perhaps, but knows exactly what you have to do to make a birthday wish come true. Dillon is an utterly beguiling mixture of anxiety and insouciance. And reason enough to clasp "Crimes of the Heart" to the warmth of your breast.
If the acting puts "Crimes of the Heart" over the top, it is what prevents "Mass Appeal" (at the Booth) from fulfilling its dramatic promise. The first work of Bill C. Davis, this two-character drama explores the relationship between an aging Catholic priest, who has compromised his faith in order to maintain his popularity in the parish, and a young seminarian, burning with ideals, who antagonizes his superiors with the rigor of his principles.
"Don't kick a--," counsels the priest (Milo O'Shea). "Better that than to kiss it," retorts the seminarian (Michael O'Keefe). The exchange pretty much sums up the evening's conflict. The two will benefit from their heated encounters, however. The older priest will rediscover the wellsprings of his original faith; the seminarian will learn that compromise need not be a humiliation. And presumably the audience will depart with the assurance that it has attended a "significant" event. (Plays about religious faith usually qualify automatically for Serious Play honors, especially when they are leavened, as this one is, with a fair amount of humor.)
Davis does have a firm sense of character and a relish for well-turned words, and he has drawn a robust picture of Father Farley, the "song and dance theologian," who appreciates his sparkling burgundy, drives a Mercedes, views the cash in the collection plate as his "Nielsen rating," and regularly goes to the races on Mondays "to get over mass on Sundays." With his bushy black eyebrows and his fleshy face, O'Shea looks like the world's oldest choirboy in the role, but he borrows a lot of his tricks from the stand-up comic. Too many, perhaps. O'Shea puts on a grand show, but if the character's grandstanding is defensible in the pulpit, it is considerably less so in the quiet of the study, where he must face up to his facile ways.
Nor is the drama aided by having O'Keefe play the seminarian. Moving as he was as the son in the movie "The Great Santini," O'Keefe does not yet possess effective techniques for the stage. His performance may be anchored in authentic anger, but the fervor comes out in misguided emphases, sudden rants and inexplicable lurches that defy belief. And since the play draws its strength from the clash and conciliation of two souls, this production of "Mass Appeal" labors under some of the drawbacks of the one-legged runner.
The rigor of Catholic doctrine is also the matter for "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You," a savage and often scorchingly funny comedy by Christopher Durang (at the Playwrights Horizons). In it, a sweet, elderly nun, played with unimpeachable authenticity by Elizabeth Franz, takes to the podium to lecture on such subjects as heaven, hell, purgatory and sin, and then to respond to various questions submitted by the audience. She also wants to show off her prize 7-year-old pupil (the utterly unself-conscious Mark Stefan), who is rewarded with a cookie each time he correctly parrots parts of the catechism.
Although she prefers to bypass that old brain-teaser, Why does an all-powerful God permit pain and suffering in the world?, Sister Mary Ignatius has precise answers for everything else. Yes, nuns go to the bathroom. Purgatory can last anywhere from 300 years to 700 billion years. And among those surely marked for hell are Zsa Zsa Gabor, the publishers of After Dark and Comden and Green. Durang is at his mischievous (some would say blasphemous) best, turning Catholic theology upside down.
But midway through the play, when four of Sister Ignatius' former pupils make a surprise visit on stage to re-enact their old school religious pageant, Durang's spoof takes on a fierce edge. To the good sister's horror, they reveal themselves as fallen creatures. One is gay, another has had two abortions, a third sleeps around, and the fourth beats his wife. They also have an accusation to lay at the foot of their teacher's robes. By brainwashing them with her belief in the goodness and order of the universe, she failed to prepare them for "the utter randomness of things." "I believed you," wails one distraught woman, who watched her mother die senselessly, agonizingly, absurdly, of cancer. Sister Ignatius responds, not with charity, but with mounting vehemence. "Jesus is going to throw up," she screams, drawing dogma about her like a shield, before bringing up her final argument -- a gun.
The play is preceded by a short curtain raiser, "An Actor's Nightmare," in which a befuddled accountant inexplicably finds himself thrust onstage as the lead in a work that richochets from "Private Lives" and "Hamlet" to "Endgame" and "A Man for All Seasons." The conceit is amusing enough, but it's really the Catholic Church that activates Durang's sharpest instincts. "Sister Mary Ignatius" is outrageous, splenetic, indecent and, frankly, hilarious.
The Playwrights Horizons, off-Broadway, is its rightful home, but at least one New York reviewer, praising the evening, suggested that maybe a transfer to Broadway was in order. Which does tend to suggest Broadway's continuing need to salve its slick commercial conscience. Where would it play? Next door to "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," maybe?