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The Runner Stumbles

If Kate Fodor's lovely "100 Saints You Should Know" had been dropped on its head as a one-act, it might have grown up to be Milan Stitt's "The Runner Stumbles," an unbearably clumsy melodrama about priestly repression inexplicably revived by the Actors Company Theater.

Cast:
Amos - Christopher Halladay Father Rivard - Mark L. Montgomery Erna Prindle - Julie Jesneck Toby Felker - Chris Hietikko Sister Rita - Ashley West Mrs. Shandig - Cynthia Darlow Prosecutor - Jamie Bennett Monsignor Nicholson - James Murtaugh Louise - Christina Bennett Lind

If Kate Fodor’s lovely “100 Saints You Should Know” had been dropped on its head as a one-act, it might have grown up to be Milan Stitt’s “The Runner Stumbles,” an unbearably clumsy melodrama about priestly repression inexplicably revived by the Actors Company Theater.

“The Runner Stumbles” is a play for people who like religion except for all the rules and the whole “God” thing. If the alternative is this sort of milquetoasty half-bashing, it’s easy to see why the honest, ignorant hostility of modern atheist polemicists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris is gaining currency. Naked aggression looks refreshing by comparison.

Uptight priest Brian Rivard (Mark L. Montgomery) is in jail at the beginning of the play. Sister Rita (Ashley West) has been murdered, and Rivard is the only suspect in the case. It doesn’t look good for our hero, who is about to go to court with only his literally untried lawyer Toby Felker (Chris Hietikko) behind him.

This isn’t a bad idea for a whodunit — a little formulaic, but sure, we’ll hang out to see what happens. As soon as the extended flashback sequences start, though, it becomes clear the whole murder mystery is window dressing for a series of ear-achingly earnest exchanges on the evils of legalism and celibacy.

The debaters are the hidebound Rivard and spunky, apple-pie wholesome Rita, who appears to have served her postulancy at the First Church of Whatever. West and Montgomery have understandable trouble making the most of these parts; Montgomery in particular plays Rivard with a mean edge that belies his character’s uncertainty. This is exacerbated by the fact that Stitt tries to make us wonder about Rivard’s innocence. Is this man actually capable of the murder he’s supposed to have committed? (Hint: no.)

“The Runner Stumbles” opened on Broadway in 1976 and ran for more than two years, making the transition to film (with stars Dick Van Dyke and Kathleen Quinlan) in 1979. This suggests something interesting or at least affecting buried under all the windbaggery, but director Scott Alan Evans hasn’t managed to find it.

It’s not all bad: Cynthia Darlow gives a nuanced performance as Rivard’s loving caretaker, and Dana Moran Williams’ simple-but-clever stylized jailhouse set is pretty enough to provide some distraction during the more pompous monologues.

And it’s encouraging to see TACT looking for a play that talks about conservative religious problems to the largely liberal New York theater audience. It’s just a shame they chose this one.

The Runner Stumbles

Theater Row/Beckett; 99 seats; $20 top

Production: An Actors Company Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Milan Stitt. Directed by Scott Alan Evans.

Creative: Set, Dana Moran Williams; costumes, David Toser; lighting, Mary Louise Geiger; original music, Joseph Trapanese; sound, Daryl Bornstein; production stage manager, Dawn Dunlop. Opened Nov. 4, 2007. Reviewed Nov. 1. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast: Amos - Christopher Halladay Father Rivard - Mark L. Montgomery Erna Prindle - Julie Jesneck Toby Felker - Chris Hietikko Sister Rita - Ashley West Mrs. Shandig - Cynthia Darlow Prosecutor - Jamie Bennett Monsignor Nicholson - James Murtaugh Louise - Christina Bennett Lind

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