Sparked by the electrifying perf of veteran thesp John Cullum, searing docudrama "Sin (A Cardinal Deposed)" looks at the scandalous child sex-abuse crimes that rocked the archdiocese of Boston and sent shockwaves through the Catholic Church in 2002.

Sparked by the electrifying perf of veteran thesp John Cullum, searing docudrama “Sin (A Cardinal Deposed)” looks at the scandalous child sex-abuse crimes that rocked the archdiocese of Boston and sent shockwaves through the Catholic Church in 2002. In his stark treatment of events leading to the conviction of two parish priests for molestation and the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law as archbishop of Boston, Michael Murphy (“The Debating Society”) studiously avoids graphic accounts of creepy priests diddling altar boys. By confining the matter to the courtroom, scribe presents his stunning revelations by contrasting pretrial depositions given by Law (Cullum) with statements of young victims and their families who gave witness against the prelate in court for neglecting to protect parishioners from sexual abuse.

In a production blessedly free of theatrical gimmicks, helmer Carl Forsman (“The Journals of Mihail Sebastian”) lays out the court records and lets the damning words speak for themselves. Doing away with the court stenographers and backup personnel who would normally crowd into a deposition room in Suffolk Superior Court for a sensitive case like this, Forsman’s lean production confines itself to the measured statements of Law and the legal maneuvering of the two lawyers who flank him at a long, nearly bare table.

Off to each side of the stage, on two undressed platforms, anonymous mothers and fathers anxiously testify to their concerns about the two predatory clergymen who were tacitly allowed by church authorities to prowl their parishes and prey on their children. Hurt and bewildered, these working-class parents are drawn with clarity by Dan Daily and Cynthia Darlow; despite jarring Boston accents, their words sizzle.

The only other character on the stage is Patrick McSorley (Pablo T. Schreiber), one of the 87 plaintiffs in the case, who sits silently by the door throughout the legal proceedings until he gets to tell his shocking story at the end of the play. Schreiber’s restrained approach to this incendiary material — giving no melodramatic hint of the fact that McSorley, who came from a troubled family, never recovered from the public notoriety and died of a drug overdose at 29 — reflects well on the young thesp (brother of Liev).

The dynamic tension of the piece is further heightened by the efforts of the two opposing mouthpieces to direct and control Law’s testimony. John Leonard Thompson’s defense attorney plays the snapping terrier to Thomas Jay Ryan’s bulldog prosecutor. Both give credible perfs of legal beagles at once awed and appalled by the nature of the job.

But it is Cullum’s iron-willed cardinal who really nails this thing to the ground. With his handsome, hawkish nose thrust firmly in the air and a faint sneer on his thin lips, thesp gracefully conveys the magisterial manner of this tainted prince of the church.

Only rarely does this carefully articulated perf allow for a down-turned eye movement or a nervous hand gesture to indicate the churchman’s misgivings about the choices he made in this sordid business. By showing such restraint, after hearing a long list of priests who had been allowed to continue their parish duties after parental charges of sexual abuse, all Cullum needs is two words — “All right” — to indicate Law’s admission of complicity.

For, as it turns out, this powerful prelate is no monster, but a consummate administrator, a CEO doing his honorable best for the company, down to its lowliest employees. Once it is fully revealed, his tragic flaw proves to be not an absence of intelligence or feeling about the grave events that happened on his watch — but the misdirection of them.

As read aloud in Cullum’s mellifluous voice, the cardinal’s personal letters of condolence to members of his suffering flock speak of genuine compassion and pastoral concern. They just happen to be addressed to the pederast priests who were finally apprehended and sent to prison — not to the young victims and their families.

Sin (a Cardinal Deposed)

Clurman Theater; 99 seats; $50

Production

A New Group presentation of a play in one act by Michael Murphy. Directed by Carl Forsman.

Creative

Sets, Nathan Heverin; costumes, Theresa Squire; lighting, Josh Bradford; sound, Samuel Doerr; production stage manager, Valerie A. Peterson. New Group artistic director, Scott Elliott. Opened Oct. 26, 2004. Reviewed Oct. 20. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Cardinal Bernard F. Law - John Cullum DSS Employee, et al. - Dan Daily Maryetta Dussourd, et al. - Cynthia Darlow Orson Krieger - Thomas Jay Ryan Patrick McSorley - Pablo T. Schreiber William Varley - John Leonard Thompson

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