Liev Schreiber (Father Flynn) and Amy Ryan (Sister Aloysius) in Roundabout Theatre Company’s new Broadway production of Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley, directed by Scott Ellis.
Photograph: Courtesy Joan MarcusDoubt: A Parable
  • Theater, Drama
  • Recommended


Doubt: A Parable

4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

Broadway review by Adam Feldman 

“Doubt can be a bond as powerful and as strong as certainty,” preaches the charismatic Father Flynn (Liev Schreiber) in the sermon that begins John Patrick Shanley’s gripping 2005 drama Doubt: A Parable. The forward-thinking priest teaches religion and physical education at a Bronx elementary school in 1964, and his speech may or may not reflect unspeakable personal struggles. Sister Aloysius (Amy Ryan), the school’s disciplinarian principal, is convinced that Flynn has sexually abused a 12-year-old boy named Donald, her first black student. When a younger teacher, the malleable Sister James (Zoe Kazan), waffles about his guilt, Aloysius scolds her naiveté: “Innocence could only be wisdom in a world without sin.” 

But is suspicion, based largely on intuition, any better? In refusing innocence, is this nun the wiser? For Sister Aloysius, a staunchly conservative Catholic, the responsibility to protect a child from violation—even by moving from vigilant to vigilante, outside the Church’s patriarchal chain of command—is a pious calling, despite conflicting with her vows. “When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you move away from God,” she says, “but in His service.” 

On its surface, Doubt is an odd kind of mystery, less a whodunit than a wasitdunnatall. More profoundly, it’s an epistemological mystery play, religious not merely in setting but in theme: an interrogation of faith itself, of choosing what to believe for reasons beyond evidence. Shanley keeps the audience guessing and second-guessing about Father Flynn right through the play’s famous final curtain line, and its questions about moral conviction and real-world power linger well after that. The shadow of Doubt follows you home from the theater and ventures into unsettling corners. Shanley goes past what we already know into what we might rather not see; a breathtaking encounter with the mother (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) of Flynn’s possible victim throws Sister Aloysius’s crusade into starkly different relief. 

Doubt: A Parable | Photograph: Courtesy Joan Marcus

Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway revival, directed by Scott Ellis, is mostly very effective. Schreiber’s hooded quality as an actor—the impassioned voice that emerges from a hard-to-read face—is ideal for his role, and he excels at the sharp-elbowed eloquence of Flynn’s sermons. The confusion of Kazan’s sensitive and affecting Sister James, who respects Sister Aloysius but also resents her (“She’s taken away my joy of teaching”), is balanced beautifully by the cutting intelligence and wariness that Bernstine brings to her pivotal scene. David Rockwell's set and Kenneth Posner's lighting bring out the darkness that can lurk in impressive institutions.

This Doubt’s equilibrium is disturbed only by Ryan’s performance. It feels a bit unfair to say so: A highly gifted actor, she stepped into the production at the very last minute, when Tyne Daly took ill; with more time in the role, she may plant herself in it more sturdily. At present, however, Ryan does fine by Aloysius’s comedic moments—her Bronx accent seems pinched from Penny Marshall—but doesn’t bring quite enough weight to this seemingly implacable woman, the play’s all-but-immovable force. (It doesn't help that she reads as younger than Schreiber.)

Even if its principal generates less interest, however, the play grows richer every time you see it. On this latest visit—my fifth encounter with Doubt, including the 2008 film with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman—I wondered if Ellis’s revival, in deference to modern sensibilities, took too clear a position on what has happened between Father Flynn and Donald. But then I remembered that my own convictions on that subject have changed each time I’ve seen some version of this work. My reactions may well say more about me than the production, and they exemplify why it remains so satisfying to sit in the dark with a crowd of people also wrestling with Doubt, divided perhaps in our suspicions but united in a liberating bond of uncertainty.

Doubt. Todd Haimes Theatre (Broadway). By John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Scott Ellis. With Amy Ryan, Liev Schreiber, Zoe Kazan, Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Running time: 1hr 25mins. No intermission.

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Doubt: A Parable | Photograph: Courtesy Joan Marcus


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