The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bill C. Davis, whose play ‘Mass Appeal’ lived up to its title, dies at 69

Playwright Bill C. Davis, in 2015, attends the Paris premiere of his play “Avow.”
Playwright Bill C. Davis, in 2015, attends the Paris premiere of his play “Avow.” (Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images)

Bill C. Davis, a playwright whose Broadway debut — “Mass Appeal,” a two-hander about a middle-aged Catholic priest and a rebellious young seminarian — lived up to its title, earning two Tony nominations and becoming a staple of community theater, died Feb. 26 at a care center in Torrington, Conn. He was 69.

The cause was complications from covid-19, said his sister, Patricia Marks. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last month, shortly after being hospitalized with the coronavirus.

Mr. Davis wrote more than a dozen plays, directing and acting in some of them himself. But he remained best known for his first major work, “Mass Appeal,” which he wrote in his mid-20s while working at a residential community for adults with developmental disabilities in Rhinebeck, N.Y., where he said he “began to understand human nature.”

By turns wry, poignant and theologically mischievous, the play examined the conflict between Father Tim Farley — a Mercedes-driving, Burgundy-drinking priest beloved by his congregation — and Mark Dolson, a seminarian who argues that his mentor should address social issues in his sermons, such as whether women or celibate gay men should be priests.

Mr. Davis had graduated from Catholic schools and had a conflicted relationship with the church, later recalling that he would cry at night as a young boy, wondering whether some of his relatives were destined for hell because they had abandoned the faith. He was only 28 when “Mass Appeal” opened off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1980, to rave reviews from critics including Frank Rich of the New York Times.

“There are few more invigorating theatrical experiences than hearing the voice of a gifted writer for the first time. … Mr. Davis is a natural,” Rich wrote in his opening lines. “He writes with wit, passion and a sure sense of stagecraft. … Thanks to Mr. Davis’s affectionate vision and keen ear for language, humor constantly bubbles to the surface of what is essentially a sorrowful work about two lost souls.”

In one scene, Farley encourages his idealistic pupil to view the collection plate as the church’s “Nielsen ratings.” In another, he offers advice on how to comfort parishioners with “harmless lies,” explaining: “Your responsibility as a priest is to bring common grief to the heights of the inconsolable by saying something inane.”

The play moved to Broadway in 1981, starring Irish actor Milo O’Shea as Farley and Michael O’Keefe as Dolson. Running for 212 performances, it earned Tony nominations for O’Shea and the director, stage and screen actress Geraldine Fitzgerald. Mr. Davis received a Drama Desk Award nomination for outstanding new play and wrote the screenplay for a 1984 film adaptation, starring Jack Lemmon and Zeljko Ivanek.

Although “Mass Appeal” poked fun at Catholic orthodoxy, the play was not a savage critique of the church in the mold of Christopher Durang’s “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You,” an off-Broadway hit at the time. Its themes extended beyond religion to generational strife and the nature of love and friendship — although Mr. Davis later said he had another, more personal subject in mind as well.

“It’s about what the life of an artist might be,” he told the Irish Independent in 2012. “I have a tension within me between the desire to say what people want and to say what they need to hear.”

Supported by royalties and the movie sale of “Mass Appeal,” Mr. Davis went on to write plays including “Dancing in the End Zone,” his only other Broadway production. A campus drama about a college quarterback torn between the demands of his mother, coach and young tutor, it opened in 1985 and closed after three weeks.

His other works included “Wrestlers,” which starred a young George Clooney and Miguel Ferrer as squabbling brothers when it ran in Los Angeles in 1985, and “Avow,” about a gay couple who asks a Catholic priest to marry them. (Mr. Davis was gay but never married.) The play ran off-Broadway in 2000, closing after a month, but later opened in Paris.

“I write a play and if it hits, it hits,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2001. “It’s hard to think of a marketplace. Who can predict that thing in the air that will be right for everyone’s attention?”

William Clarke Davis was born in Ellenville, N.Y., on Aug. 24, 1951, to a family of Italian, Irish and Eastern European descent. He grew up in nearby Poughkeepsie, where his mother worked as an executive assistant at Vassar College. His father, an Army veteran who had been captured by the Germans during World War II, managed a men’s clothing store.

“In my family’s house, talking was very difficult,” Mr. Davis told the Times in 1984. “For someone like myself, who really wanted to communicate, it was harrowing. So I would have these dialogues inside myself that I could put down on paper and then I could see it and it somehow helped to resolve things. There’s something very peaceful about the process when it’s working right.”

He wrote his first play at age 16 and later drew inspiration from his family for works such as “The German Doctor,” loosely based on his father’s months as a wounded POW, and “All Hallowed,” inspired by his father’s burial on Halloween in 1995, and by the determination of Mr. Davis’s nephew to go trick-or-treating that night.

Mr. Davis graduated from Marist College in Poughkeepsie in 1974 and staged early versions of “Mass Appeal” at the school. He sometimes played Dolson in productions of the play, including in 1983 at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre in Florida, where the “Smokey and the Bandit” star directed him and actor Charles Durning.

Although theater remained his focus, Mr. Davis wrote, directed, produced and acted in a pair of 2018 independent films, “Household Accounts” and “Avow,” which he adapted from his play. He also threw himself into politics, joining the Green Party and launching an unsuccessful congressional campaign in Connecticut in 2005.

In addition to his sister, survivors include a brother.

Mr. Davis frequently wrote for the progressive news website Common Dreams, penning an impassioned plea in November for a ban on Coke and Pepsi, an end to fast-food chains and a war on sugar and processed food. He had previously argued that “America suffers from a lack of empathy” and offered a solution — theater.

“Theater picks up where religion leaves off,” he told the Irish Independent, linking two of the great threads of his life. “It fosters a sense of empathy and community.”