The circles of disenfranchisement at work in "Racing Demon" are concentric, like the tightening rings of a target whose bull's-eye is the Church of England. The largest ring is the flock itself, which has abandoned the churches. For their part, the priests have returned the favor, going through the motions of administering the sacraments to a shrinking congregation that has long since turned elsewhere for redemption.

The circles of disenfranchisement at work in “Racing Demon” are concentric, like the tightening rings of a target whose bull’s-eye is the Church of England. The largest ring is the flock itself, which has abandoned the churches. For their part, the priests have returned the favor, going through the motions of administering the sacraments to a shrinking congregation that has long since turned elsewhere — to drugs, cults, television, gangs — for redemption. Such alienation inevitably leads to the kind of institutional cannibalism that is at the center of this unsettling, deeply pessimistic play. “The church isn’t a joke, it’s an irrelevance,” exclaims Lionel Espy (Josef Sommer), an inner-city priest for whom practical service to his struggling immigrant parishioners takes precedence over the rituals to which his superiors wish he would pay more attention on the theory that rite makes might.

Hare has always written movingly about the fractures between the world as we might like it to be and the one that is, from the postwar activists without a cause in “Plenty” to the flawed, lost souls of “A Map of the World” and “The Secret Rapture.” But with “Racing Demon” five years ago, followed by “Murmuring Judges” and “Absence of War”– all first produced at London’s Royal National Theatre — Hare began looking at the institutions that are at the heart of much of British life. Not unexpectedly, he found plenty wanting.

Lionel is vulnerable to attacks from below as well as above. His young new curate, Tony (Michael Cumpsty), has an evangelical zeal Lionel can see right through yet can do nothing to contain. Tony is appalled at Lionel’s reluctance to bring Jesus into his ministering, linking it to the fact that the church is empty on Sunday mornings. Tony also has caught the ear of the bishop (George N. Martin), who warns Lionel at the play’s outset that he’d better get with the program — or there will be consequences. “Put on a show!” the bishop says.

Hare is never one to draw characters in black-and-white. Lionel is a mess whose wife (Kathleen Chalfant) is having a nervous breakdown and whose grown daughter seems nowhere to be found. More importantly, he is no paragon of reformism over ritual: “You parade your so-called humility until it becomes a disgusting sort of pride,” the bishop complains, and while there’s little question where our sympathy falls, the man has a point.

Lionel’s conversational relationship with God doesn’t exactly translate into an active search for new answers to old questions, or even a bold break with doctrine. Instead, he and his cronies have become a kind of protection racket, and the only thing they’re passionate about protecting is their jobs. The play’s funniest scene is set at the Savoy, where the friends have come to waylay Tony before a dinner with the bishop, only to get smashed on tequila sunrises.

Meanwhile, Tony’s a fanatic quickly devolving into a crackpot. He leaves his lover Frances (Kathryn Meisle) — the beautiful, seen-it-all daughter of a church higher-up — to devote himself wholly to the calling. What may at first be charitably called youthful enthusiasm becomes downright dangerous as he starts making unwanted housecalls, and we finally leave him convinced he has the power to cure AIDS and babbling about the virgin birth.

While “Racing Demon” takes a while to get off the ground, Hare creates a keenly observed world whose veneer of complacency is shattered by a series of forces that seem inevitable and ultimately irrevocable. No one wins; the bond is crack’d, to use Shakespeare’s phrase, and nothing is offered to replace it.

Richard Eyre — who also directed the production at the Doolittle Theatre last year — has assembled a first-class cast for this modern morality tale, with Sommer, Martin and Cumpsty at the center, hurtling toward that bull’s-eye with dead-on accuracy. But they’re surrounded by fine actors putting flesh on sketchier roles, notably Paul Giamatti and Brian Murray, as Lionel’s cohorts, and Meisle as the g.f., a role only slightly less underwritten than Chalfant’s, as Lionel’s dissolving wife, and Stella Marr’s, as an abused parishioner.

Bob Crowley, last represented in this theater with “Carousel,” sets the action on a simple cruciform set, relying heavily on Wendall K. Harrington’s projections to set the scenes. As vividly as these dialogues were created, there never was much sense that this was all taking place in the south of London. It might have been anywhere.

But in truth, the questions raised here reverberate everywhere through a society in which spirituality is under constant assault by everything from “ethnic cleansing” to tabloid TV. The characters in “Racing Demon” are constantly turning to God for answers. But Hare’s God is no comfort, keeping everything exceptionally close to the vest.

Racing Demon

Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York; 1,086 seats; $45 top

Production

A Lincoln Center Theater presentation, by arrangement with the Royal National Theatre, of a play in two acts by David Hare. Directed by Richard Eyre.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Bob Crowley; lighting, Mark Henderson; projections, Wendall K. Harrington; sound, Scott Myers; music, George Fenton; stage manager, Susie Cordon; production manager, Jeff Hamlin; artistic director, Andre Bishop; executive producer, Bernard Gersten. Opened Nov. 20, 1995; reviewed Nov. 23. Running time: 2 hours, 50 min.

Cast

Cast: Josef Sommer (Rev. Lionel Espy), George N. Martin (Rt. Rev. Charlie Allen), Michael Cumpsty (Rev. Tony Ferris), Paul Giamatti (Rev. Donald "Streaky" Bacon), Brian Murray (Rev. Harry Henderson), John C. Vennema (Rt. Rev. Gilbert Heffernan), Kathryn Meisle (Frances Parnell), Patrice Johnson (Stella Marr), Kathleen Chalfant (Heather Espy), Denis O'Hare (Ewan Gilmour), John Curless (Tommy Adair); Richard Clarke, Robert Gomes, Ian Stuart, Tom Bloom, Alison Sheehy, Angela Thornton, Terri Towns.
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more