Mark Kemble’s “A Comfortable Truth,” receiving its world premiere at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center, is subtitled “The Story of a Boy and His Priest.” But the subtitle should have been “The Story of a Family and Their Priest,” because Kemble’s Catholic priest villain is no mere pedophile — he’s an indiscriminate sexual predator who preys on all sexes and ages. This creates such a storm of melodramatic anguish that it diminishes the central theme, obscuring the author’s efforts to present a clear, definitive statement on the crucial issue of church child abuse.
A mistake of focus is made immediately when Thomas (Zack Graham), a young man psychologically maimed by molestation, is introduced in act one, has an explosive scene and then disappears until act two. Thomas — a rebel who screams “eat my brains,” has a rock group named the Fourth Reich Vatican Nazis and wears a ripped red shirt, combat boots and chains — doesn’t register as a universal representation of abused children. Graham is an intense, highly skilled actor and delivers each church-crucifying zinger masterfully, but we feel no sympathy or identification with the character.
Dr. Cunningham (Alan Blumenfeld), the therapist hired by the church to unearth a “comfortable truth” about Thomas’ potentially damaging claims, is even less convincing. He appears to possess the magical power to hypnotize people in seconds and make them spill secrets; before long, these rapid-fire trances and confessions resemble nightclub routines. Another of his psychiatric approaches is strapping the priest’s penis to a peter meter to measure sexual response, which looks ludicrous and unintentionally comic onstage.
This priest, Father Grant (Paul Lieber) is a superficially affable fellow who seduces Thomas with a game called “Car,” in which the boy plays driver and sits on him, and before long notices, with mounting panic, that a hard foreign object has forced its way into the game. Father Grant’s other demonic diversions include seducing Thomas’ mother, Pamela (Shareen Mitchell), into oral sex and her ex-Marine husband, Ray (Greg Mullavey), into a gay encounter.
It’s difficult but possible to grasp why Pamela acquiesces, given her fear of church authority. Ray’s surrender, however, follows a long interlude in which he confesses uncontrollable lust for a female neighbor, a confession encouraged by the priest. This heterosexual frenzy doesn’t lead logically into a liaison with Father Grant.
Lieber’s Father Grant has the properly charismatic, slippery cunning, but there’s little reality beneath his florid, obscene dialogue. Mitchell’s shattered wife is often touching, especially when she says to Thomas: “Don’t hate me. I did everything I could do.” Mullavey contributes an outstandingly honest, nuanced portrayal as Ray, an ordinary, not-too-bright guy who tries to cope with appalling circumstances.
As director, Kemble reveals a theatrical flair, working imaginatively with set designer Juan Carlos Malpeli to create intriguing visual background involving melted candles, a broken Madonna’s head on the floor, red velvet couch and a porch swing containing frozen actors traumatized by their situation. But Kemble is unable to maintain the cohesive distance so beautifully accomplished in his 1995 play about the Hollywood blacklist, “Names.” In his quest for powerful drama, he covers too much territory and avoids the simplicity that would achieve his goal.