Doubt: A Parable review – Liev Schreiber and Amy Ryan electrify Broadway restaging

<span>Liev Schreiber and Amy Ryan in Doubt.</span><span>Photograph: Joan Marcus</span>
Liev Schreiber and Amy Ryan in Doubt.Photograph: Joan Marcus

The new revival of Doubt, its first on Broadway since it premiered there in 2005, is freighted with shadows: of suspicions, secrets and intimations. But also of years of headlines about endemic sexual abuse in the Catholic church and of the original Broadway show, which garnered a Pulitzer prize for playwright John Patrick Shanley and several Tony awards, and of the 2008 film adaptation, an acting tour de force with Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and one career-defining scene from Viola Davis. It’s a show heavy with context, personal and otherwise; you can feel the weight of precedent and judgment as Father Flynn (Liev Schreiber) emerges from the dark at the Todd Haimes Theatre in his vestment, vital before a faux-stained glass window, preaching to his flock – the audience – about the connective power of doubt.

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And yet this new production, directed by Scott Ellis and starring Schreiber and Amy Ryan, stands on its own. Like its forebears, the revival, which runs through mid-April, keeps things simple – four well-acted performances with a powerful alchemy of faith and righteousness, judicious costumes by Linda Cho, a set by David Rockwell that economically transforms from principal’s office, exterior walled garden and spare pulpit at St Nicholas’s parish in the Bronx, 1964. The stage version carries the subtitle A Parable, and Shanley’s play remains a provocative and absorbing examination of intuition, institution and uncertainty in a cloistered powder keg of local power. It’s a testament to the magnetism of the performances and the play itself – its pared-down structure, its tension of agendas at odds – that the 90-minute show breezes by in what feels like half that.

Ryan ably assumes the robe of Sister Aloysius, the head nun of St Nicholas, a role originated by Cherry Jones and epitomized by Streep. Her command, if initially mechanical, is all the more impressive considering she took on the role last-minute, after Tyne Daly withdrew just days before previews, citing health issues. (The 77-year-old actor is reportedly on the mend from a surprise hospitalization and expected to make a full recovery.) Aloysius is a familiar version of the habit – harsh, rigid, disciplinary, a woman who has starched and pressed her worldview into joyless totems of piety (“satisfaction is a vice”, “in the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God”). Her distaste for the secular and the pleasurable – she blanches at paganism in Frosty the Snowman – is often successfully played for laughs, particularly when in contrast to the wide-eyed naivety and passion of Sister James (Zoe Kazan).

Both sisters suspect that Father Flynn has molested an eighth-grade boy – Donald Muller, 12 years old, the school’s first and only Black student, whom he has singled out for special attention. Sister James views her concern as a problem to be explained, assuaged and remanded; Aloysius sees a certainty to be proven by whatever means necessary, Father Flynn’s adamant protestations of innocence and the powerhouse leveling of her moral high ground by Donald’s mother (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) notwithstanding.

If audiences are familiar with this parable, it will likely be through the film version, which is more portentous than this relatively jaunty staging; the film also tips the scales toward Father Flynn’s guilt, via evidence and the presence of a child actor playing Donald. There is no such implication here – belief in what Father Flynn has or has not done comes down, as it so often does in life and court, to a gut feeling based on fallible testimony. Schreiber, with his one-time Marvel build, can’t help but play Flynn as a little bit imposing and intimidating; his presence has a natural command and gravitas, the kind that draws an audience toward admiration and respect. His Flynn is also disarmingly colloquial and avuncular; he likes to instruct the boys on their free throw shots.

Yet it’s easy to assume the worst of Father Flynn – since the play premiered in 2004, two years after the Boston Globe Spotlight investigations, the Catholic church has become, for many, synonymous with sexual abuse and rampant cover-up. We all know it can happen, does happen, has happened just like this. Which makes the play’s obfuscation of fact and evidence – its sole reliance on gut as the barometer of certainty – a discomfiting viewing experience. Who to believe gets twisted quickly into what matters, who benefits in the quest of righteousness, whether to follow principle, practicality or belief. Little in this story, as in life, is certain, though it’s no doubt fascinating to watch.