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 -- shanleysmoney@aol.com. Playgoers of all stripes have written to him, and he faithfully writes back.

"I've been offered to join a synagogue, come to a rectory for drinks and address sisters in a convent," this erstwhile Catholic school rebel recounts. What a lot of the correspondence conveys, he says, is the audience's thirst for a ripping yarn -- exactly what "Doubt" quenches. "One of the reasons that 'Doubt' is doing so well," Shanley adds, "is because people are saying this isn't a play about language, about what a fabulous speech there is in it. They're saying, 'I'm wrapped up in this story.' "

The story is told, with four actors and without intermission, in a crisp 90 minutes.

It's concerned with a question it never actually answers: Is the principal, Sister Aloysius (Jones), justified in her persecution of O'Byrne's Father Flynn? Did he engage in sex with the school's only black student? Or is hidebound Sister Aloysius merely exacting an unjust revenge on a priest who embodies the more liberal precepts of Vatican II?

The connection to recent events in the church may seem transparent. But the play is revealing on a much deeper level. It's a challenge to one's ability to view a moral dilemma from more than one angle. One of the work's most searing scenes involves an invitation to the boy's mother, played by Lenox, to listen to Aloysius's suspicions about the boy and the priest. The mother's surprising reaction, however, turns the play in a totally unforeseen direction, forcing spectators to rethink their sense of right and wrong. It is Shanley's contention that the play's final act occurs after the curtain does down, when people leave the theater and fall into their own debates.

"Everybody comes away with their own version of events," says the play's director, Doug Hughes. "The wonderful thing that can happen in a theater is they can take it personally as a group. They go and talk to their friends and family, and it is a preamble to a real discourse."

O'Byrne, for his part, is compiling a documentary record backstage of just how divided audiences are. He asks friends and acquaintances who visit him after a performance to indicate whose side in the play they're on by posing for a Polaroid with a little plastic statue of a priest or nun. (The undecided pose with both.) In an interview in his dressing room, O'Byrne happily shows off a boxful of snapshots of actors such as Julia Roberts and Laura Linney holding the figurines.

For some hit plays, hardship is the precursor to success. "Doubt's" rise, however, has been virtually problem-free. After "Moonstruck," Shanley's film career soured; he wrote and directed one of Tom Hanks's few bombs, "Joe Versus the Volcano." Playwriting, though, was the true love, and over the years he's had his plays produced consistently at the Manhattan Theatre Club, where once upon a time he served as a backstage minion. "He was a really good house manager," says Lynne Meadow, the club's longtime artistic director. "When he said he was going to write plays, I was actually sad to see him go."

With "Doubt," Shanley is revisiting his childhood in the Bronx. Sister Aloysius, a woman in whom Jones invests both off-putting rigidity and endearing intelligence, is based on two nuns he knew. But the play is also an attempt to write in the style of American plays of yore such as "All My Sons" and "The Crucible." "Plays," he says, "that were really grown up."

"I thought I'd really like to write a well-structured play not simply poured from a deep unconscious. I found myself having an appetite for a well-told story."

Meadow read the script one evening. The next morning, the machinery started rolling. She and Shanley agreed Hughes was the right director, and Hughes responded in kind. "There's great courage in the title," Hughes says. "Its name is its nature."

Another thing Hughes and Shanley agreed on: Although the script is neutral as to whether the priest is guilty of the accusations Sister Aloysius levels, O'Byrne should not be in the dark. "Before we began rehearsals, John and Brian and I arrived at the back story of the priest, at exactly what happened. None of the women in the cast knew. When we walked in on the first day, we said, 'The play is called 'Doubt,' and Cherry, as long as you play it, and Adriane, as long as you play this, you will never know for sure,' " the director said. The secret is still under wraps.

The actors' chemistry is a crucial factor in the calculus of a hit. The performances, particularly those of Jones and O'Byrne, seem crucial elements in the play's success, and care will have to be taken when they're replaced. (Both are currently under contract through mid-September.) "Doubt's" experience earlier this year in a production in California points out how sensitive the matter of casting can be. The staging at the Pasadena Playhouse, with Linda Hunt as Sister Aloysius, failed to drum up anything like the excitement of the East Coast incarnation. Taking issue with Hunt's self-conscious portrayal, Rob Kendt gave it a mixed notice in the Los Angeles Times. The reviewer labeled it a "perfunctory but still powerful production."

With its reputation beyond the theater cognoscenti still a work in progress, "Doubt" can ill afford any karmic damage. Drew Hodges, president of SpotCo, a prominent Broadway advertising firm, is one of those charged with planting seeds of "Doubt" in the minds of potential audiences. Unlike mainstream movies, which depend on a flood of opening-week ads, Hodges says that a play must dole out promotion more strategically. "You're always trying to take success and fan that flame a little higher, a little higher," he observes. "If you rush the fire, it will go out."

The analogy helps explain why it's so hard for a new play to penetrate the American psyche rapidly. The challenge is especially formidable when you're marketing something less tangible than a star. "This is a play about ambiguity," he says. "How do you sell a play about ambiguity?"

"Doubt" is following a tested formula of mostly print ads that go for avid theatergoers first. The hope is that once firmly established, the play can make the leaps to an ever wider circle of the theatrically curious. "You can almost map it," Hodges says, "like a stone in a pond rippling out."

Where in that pond are outlying theater towns like Washington? Joy Zinoman, artistic director of Studio Theatre, made a pitch for the city's very early inclusion in "Doubt's" plans. Such was her enthusiasm for the play that she lobbied for permission to put her own production on one of the Studio stages this coming season. "I had a slot," she says. "I had a cast. I thought I had a chance."

She ultimately was turned down; "Doubt's" producers are planning a tour for fall 2006. (The Kennedy Center's Kaiser has expressed interest in a booking, but he says he'd want to know who's being cast.) The irony is not lost on Zinoman: "It's doing too well at the box office for us."

It doesn't happen often, a play so hot that theater people are banging down the doors. Hodges and others are working on keeping the temperature rising, trying to steer "Doubt" to what he calls "the last tier, the high air, when you get to be a cultural touchstone." A play reaches that plateau when it becomes a topic beyond newspaper arts sections -- when the New Yorker, for instance, starts mentioning it in cartoons. "Then you start to see ripples for years after. 'Doubt,' " he says, "could get there."

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. A clash of wills that's resonating profoundly with audiences: Brian F. O'Byrne and Cherry Jones square off in "Doubt."Playwright John Patrick Shanley and Cherry Jones share their joy last month when "Doubt" won four Tonys, including awards for best play and actress.