Say a prayer for David Hare's "Racing Demon." While intellectually deft and brilliantly acted, the nearly three-hour drama about political infighting in the Church of England sputters dramatically. Piece is in limited run here as part of the UK/LA fest; the play and/or production may have its eyes on Gotham, but Broadway rarely goes to church and this piece would likely leave the collection plate empty.

Say a prayer for David Hare’s “Racing Demon.” While intellectually deft and brilliantly acted, the nearly three-hour drama about political infighting in the Church of England sputters dramatically. Piece is in limited run here as part of the UK/LA fest; the play and/or production may have its eyes on Gotham, but Broadway rarely goes to church and this piece would likely leave the collection plate empty.

Dramaturgs saw fit to include an explanation and a history on the Church of England in the program. That speaks directly to the problem this piece may have in the U.S.

The play has done boffo biz in rep at London’s National Theater over the last five years, which Hare attributed to a public hungry for theatre about its church. But its subject matter is difficultfor American audiences.

“Racing Demon”– the first of the playwright’s three-part legit series on Brit institutions — explores the lives of four Anglican priests, hammering away at their personal demons, which demurely include pre-marital and extra-marital sex, homosexuality, drunkenness and violence.

Plot hovers around the Rev. Lionel Espy (Oliver Ford Davies), about to be dismissed for questioning his and the Church’s beliefs. Lionel works with three other priests in an inner-city London conclave of four churches intended to jointly minister to the working class.

He has been so battered by the poverty around him that he routinely downplays the Church party line in favor of his own more liberal approach. He condones a young girl’s difficult abortion, but refuses to help her outside the church walls.

Enter a young maverick, the Rev. Tony Ferris (Adam Kotz), who is outraged by Lionel’s blase efforts at rallying the public to rediscover the Church. He complains to the Bishop (Nicholas Day), making himself a pariah among Lionel’s priest friends but winning points with the brass.

Tangential, but ultimately undeveloped storylines involve the Rt. Rev. Harry Henderson (Michael Bryant), who is pursued by a London tabloid as a gay priest; the Bishop’s long-standing debate with his officers whether women should be ordained; Lionel’s unhappy marriage; and Tony’s desirable girlfriend (Saskia Wickham).

It’s not for nothing that the first line of the play is: “God, where are you?” and the last moment is blindingly bright white light. Hare’s disillusionment with the Church is painfully clear.

Mired in politics, it loses sight of its true purpose; and facedwith modern dilemmas, says Hare, it can no longer minister moral codes without getting into the trenches with the suffering.

Such lofty themes get lost as Hare’s structure unravels as easily as Lionel’s marriage. Act one seems to be setting up a battle royale over Lionel’s fate, but Hare never delivers. The climactic argument with the Bishop only reconfirms action that happened long before the play starts.

Lionel’s plight, while worthy, is less than tragic. His fall in the end is more of a shift downward, and the character is hampered by a severe lack of dramatic action.

Problems aside, the play intrigues with crackling dialogue and thought-provoking arguments about the purpose of the Church. And the acting is crisp and clean.

To single out any one of the stellar performances would be a disservice to the others, but Davies, Kotz, Bryant, Wickham, Richard Pasco and Adrian Scarborough work together like a finely tuned machine.

Director Richard Eyre’s hand is virtually invisible, which says it was everpresent in building the relationships between the characters, rather than aimlessly ushering them about the stage to keep things active. And he seamlessly choreographs numerous and potentially clunky set changes underneath monologues.

Set designer Bob Crowley uses a few prop pieces and a large upstage cross that doubles as a screen for a variety of photographic slides that depict locales.

Costumes, credited to the National’s Workshops, are fascinating in their detailed re-creations of Church garb. Mark Henderson’s lighting surgically carves up the stage surface.

Racing Demon

Doolittle Theater, Hollywood; 1,021 seats; $50 top

Production

A Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre presentation, in association with James A. Doolittle, of a Royal National Theatre production of a drama in two acts by David Hare; director, Richard Eyre; designer, Bob Crowley.

Creative

Lighting, Mark Henderson; music, George Fenton; sound, Scott Myers. Opened, reviewed Oct. 5, 1994; runs through Oct. 23. Running time: 2 hrs., 45 min.

Cast

The Rev. Lionel Espy - Oliver Ford Davies
The Rt. Rev. Charlie Allen, Bishop of Southwark - Richard Pasco
The Rev. Tony Ferris - Adam Kotz
The Rev. Donald "Streaky" Bacon - Adrian Scarborough
The Rev. Harry Henderson - Michael Bryant
The Rt. Rev. Gilbert Heffernan, Bishop of Kingston - Nicholas Day
Servers - Robert Tunstall, Roger Swaine
Cross Bearer - Doyne Byrd
Frances Parnell - Saskia Wickham
Stella Marr - Joy Richardson
Heather Espy - Barbara Leigh-Hunt
Ewan Gilmour - Alastair Galbraith
Tommy Adair - Paul Moriarty
Head Waiter - Gregor Singleton
With: Judith Coke, Julie Hewlett, Tayce Nichols.
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