All the elements come invigoratingly together like clockwork in John Patrick Shanley's provocative new play, "Doubt," a gripping story of suspicion cast on a priest's behavior that is less about scandal than about fascinatingly nuanced questions of moral certainty.

All the elements come invigoratingly together like clockwork in John Patrick Shanley’s provocative new play, “Doubt,” a gripping story of suspicion cast on a priest’s behavior that is less about scandal than about fascinatingly nuanced questions of moral certainty. A remarkable mid-career high for a playwright here looking at broader themes with subtlety, maturity and complexity, the perspicacious writing superbly balances gravitas with considerable humor, backed in Manhattan Theater Club’s world-premiere production by a peerless cast, crisp design and impeccable direction from Doug Hughes.

While the sturdy current Second Stage revival of “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” showed what a vital, emotional writer Shanley can be when dealing with an intimate encounter, “Doubt” moves up several notches from personal realm to issues with greater social and philosophical resonance.

Inspired in part by the experience of one of Shanley’s family members, who was molested by a priest, and by the playwright’s memories of attending a Catholic school, the drama approaches the volatile subject of pedophilia within the church only in terms of the questions it raises regarding judgment and perceptions of guilt.

Set in 1964 in St. Nicholas Church School in an Irish-Italian Bronx parish, the play is tightly structured as a series of two- or three-character confrontations, cranked up with unerring control by Hughes in steady gradations from the thorny humor and unsettling undercurrents of the initial scenes to the searing suspense of the final exchanges.

Shanley elegantly punctuates these faceoffs with three telling monologues, two of them sermons delivered by the priest in question and a third in which he addresses his unseen class of preteen boys in the locker room after a basketball game.

“What do you do when you’re not sure?” asks Father Flynn (Brian O’Byrne) in the play’s opening sermon. Acknowledging the shared despair and disorientation engendered by John F. Kennedy’s assassination the previous year, the priest asks his flock to consider the profound isolation and pain of a person dealing with a private calamity. “There are those of you in church today who know exactly the crisis of faith I describe,” he adds. “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.”

The inclusiveness of Flynn’s words triggers the alert button of school principal Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones), an old-guard disciplinarian who’s long been suspicious of the young priest’s brotherly manner. She summons Sister James (Heather Goldenhersh) to her office and recruits her as a spy, questioning, for extra leverage, the younger nun’s competence as a teacher. “I thought you were satisfied with me,” whimpers James. “Satisfaction is a vice,” replies the principal.

Effectively crushing James’ joy of teaching with one steely mandate, Aloysius instructs her to become more cold in her thinking, to forget herself and study others. The nun returns with a report of 12-year-old altar boy Donald Muller, the only black child in school, who was called into the rectory for a private discussion with Flynn and came back looking shaken, with alcohol on his breath. “The little sheep lagging behind is the one the wolf goes for,” says Aloysius. “It is my job to outshine the fox in cleverness.”

Shanley’s brilliantly orchestrated interplay and finely honed dialogue are nowhere sharper than in a tense scene in which the principal gathers Flynn and James in her office under the pretext of discussing the Christmas pageant, which, like art, dance and much of history class, Aloysius regards as a waste of time.

Her insinuation of something untoward in the priest’s interest in Donald prompts Flynn to drop his easygoing manner and stand up to the nun. But despite his seemingly plausible explanation, accepted with relief by James, Aloysius remains convinced he’s lying.

What makes the play so fascinating is that Shanley has little concrete interest in whether or not the priest is guilty. Instead, he focuses on the relentlessness of Aloysius’ witch hunt, which stretches the boundaries of honesty. “In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God,” she observes.

The playwright has created a formidable character in Aloysius, and Jones brings her to life with thrilling authority. Initially inviting the audience slyly to laugh at her acid-tongued austerity and unnerving directness, the actress gradually reveals the extent to which this rigid authority figure is a dangerous, self-appointed, one-woman moral army, with no place for uncertainty in her thinking.

Narrowing her gaze to chill her interlocutors into stunned silence, Jones richly inhabits a vigilant character with no soft edges, exposing her vulnerability only in the play’s final moments, a revelation no less icy than her displays of strength.

Worlds away from the cold remove of his Tony-winning perf in last season’s “Frozen,” O’Byrne’s reteaming with director Hughes delivers sterling work, with a character in many ways a match for Aloysius, though far less transparent. “Where’s your compassion?” asks the priest. “Nowhere you can get at it,” answers the nun.

Flynn’s a caring, thinking man, seemingly from a tough neighborhood, and his troubled depths provide a riveting focus for assessment of his guilt or innocence, an area in which Shanley and the actor trace a vast gray zone.

Goldenhersh is no less accomplished in the third key role of mousy James, a fragile-voiced (she has a minor speech defect), emotional woman, who reveals unexpected flashes of feistiness as she begins to question the principal’s iron-clad position and comes to resent the older woman’s extinguishing of her youthful optimism and trusting outlook.

Incisively nailing a complex character in one knockout scene, Adriane Lenox appears as Donald’s mother, a seemingly nervous woman who also reveals a surprising refusal to be intimidated, her experience with an overbearing, brutal husband having prepared her to deal with Aloysius. Shanley’s audacious treatment of the woman’s reaction upon hearing the nun’s suspicions represents one of the most arresting moments in a play that consistently avoids pre-programmed responses.

“Every easy choice today will have its consequence tomorrow,” warns Aloysius at one point. Shanley deserves credit for refusing to give either his characters or his audience clear, easy choices, instead suggesting deep shadings of interpretation.

Even while respecting its silences, Hughes directs the play without an ounce of flab. There’s a similar intelligence and economy in John Lee Beatty’s soberly lit, uncluttered sets, which lend depth and a fitting solemnity to the stark convent spaces.

With this fine production, MTC has hatched something rare for this season: a laudable new American play, which should have smart actors lining up to appear in subsequent stagings both in the U.S. and abroad.

Doubt

City Center Stage 1; 299 seats; $60 top

Production

A Manhattan Theater Club presentation of a play in one act by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Doug Hughes.

Creative

Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Pat Collins; music, sound, David Van Tiegham; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis; production stage manager, Charles Means. Reviewed Nov. 21, 2004. Opened Nov. 23. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Sister James - Heather Goldenhersh Sister Aloysius - Cherry Jones Mrs. Muller - Adriane Lenox Father Flynn - Brian O'Byrne
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