Earnest plays about the search for religious faith (or the loss of same) are, perforce, mainly of interest to other like-minded searchers (or losers). But Kate Fodor’s “100 Saints You Should Know” has more going for it than its schematic plot about a priest who has lost his vocation and the rectory housecleaner who badgers him for spiritual direction. While restricted in their thoughts, Fodor’s closely observed characters speak well for themselves. And in the engaging performances of an all-pro Playwrights Horizons cast, they earn the attention they crave.
Helmer Ethan McSweeny’s sensitive reading of the material and an extremely classy cast make all the difference in a production of this episodic and none-too-original drama about the difficulties of grasping and holding onto one’s beliefs in a modern world.
Matthew is a young Catholic priest, his selfless and compassionate nature so persuasively portrayed by Jeremy Shamos (“Reckless”) that he could pose for Vatican recruitment posters. Theresa (Janel Moloney) is the hired housekeeper who cleans his toilet, along with the rest of the rectory, and in Moloney’s warm and wisely understated perf, she’s as nice as he is — and just as troubled.
It isn’t love, or even sex, that makes Matthew and Theresa soulmates; it’s religious conviction. The priest seems to have lost his, just as his nonreligious housekeeper feels the first stirrings of hers. And when Matthew bolts from the rectory for his mother’s home, Theresa follows him.
Their separate but intersecting quests for belief would be more involving had Fodor not been so stingy with the past and present details of their lives. Priests are, after all, only human; but Matthew seems not to have a friend in the world, not even a professional colleague or an old basketball buddy to confide in, and he rattles around in his lonely rectory without dropping a clue about the kind of parish work he does.
What Matthew does have is his mother, Colleen, a pious Irish-Catholic widow who gets no quarter from actress Lois Smith (“The Trip to Bountiful”). In her scrupulously honest portrayal, Smith allows us to pity Colleen, a stern and rigid moralist who has stripped life down to its simplest, most comfortable rituals. But while she fairly depicts Colleen’s frustration in trying to get past Matthew’s defensiveness, the actress reveals the fear and moral cowardice in this mother’s ultimate inability to give her son the love and comfort he cries out for.
Theresa has a tad more to work with, being the single mother of a rebellious teenage daughter to whom she has given the comically ill-fitting old-fashioned name of Abby (Zoe Kazan). In an eye-catching perf built on solid technical proficiency, Kazan (“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”) gives full rein to this foul-mouthed and willful brat, indulging her boastful fantasies of being a “bad girl.” But this smart young thesp also peels Abby down to her little-girl core, the child who wants direction from her too-permissive mom.
Visually, there’s not a whole lot to look at in this spare production, so Mimi O’Donnell’s amusingly ugly costumes for Abby (love that flippy skirt) are welcome eye candy. And Rachel Hauck has designed a stunning abstract tree — its slender, silvery branches reaching upward to you-know-where — that takes on even more meaning when Garrett (Will Rogers) is introduced.
Garrett, a gangly kid who delivers groceries to Matthew’s homebound mother, is about as old as Abby but far less experienced. In his disarmingly guileless attempts to please, he’s the perfect foil for her experimental attempts to be “bad.” Although Rogers plays some goofy vocal games that do the character no good, the young thesp is something to watch as he slouches and squirms and occasionally even holds his ground.
Structurally, Fodor has written an articulate, if dramatically circular play, with the overlong and repetitive setup scenes in the first act methodically paying off in the second. Because her thesis is as much about the yearning for human warmth as the quest for abstract faith, there isn’t actually much talk about religious doctrine. But in the end, scribe relies on an arbitrary plot crisis — rather than more satisfying character interaction — to spur the sad people in her play to rethink the thoughts that have kept them going in circles looking for faith. Or whatever they want to call the love they yearn for.