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A Ritual of Faith

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The war of ideologies brewing in Brad Levinson's A Ritual of Faith comes from the unshakable foundations of his characters' religious beliefs. 1800s Italy, at least as depicted in the production at the Lion Theatre, is one in which point of view, more even than belief in God, is the ruling force. The result, while difficult to watch and absorb, is highly compelling.

The play revolves around a central, deceptively simple question: Does faith reside in one's body or one's heart? Both of the dueling camps at the play's core, Judaism and Christianity, define certain rituals - in this case, circumcision and baptism - as integral components of their own faith, but don't necessarily believe in the benefit of the other. It's not uncommon for the Jewish characters in the play to wonder why a splash of water on the head and a prayer holds the power it does, for example.

Yet in A Ritual of Faith, exactly that simple act proves tumultuous when an officer of the Church arrives to take the young Aaron Congedo (Aaron Feldman) away from his mother and father (Laura Fois and Matthew Boston). It's claimed that Aaron was baptized, and as such he belongs with his Christian family instead of his biological one. Though Aaron's father pleads with his brother-in-law Yaacov (Tibor Feldman) to intercede on his behalf, even Yaacov's friendship with Inquisitor Santini (Ryan Hilliard) proves insufficient.

But, though Aaron's parents are allowed modest visitation at first, it's when it becomes clear that their only real choice is whether or not to convert to Christianity that the play gets really interesting. Levinson provides a remarkably even-handed treatment, each side rational and considerate, having the opportunity to make their case. And, in between, the arguments that erupt between husband and wife, sister and brother, religious leader and religious leader, and even parents and child prove fiery and frequently gripping.

Levinson succeeds in neither demonizing nor lionizing either side - everyone is right and everyone is wrong. Occasionally mixed with elements of a good mystery story, A Ritual of Faith becomes richer still, rewarding as entertainment even as it's thought-provoking. Igor Goldin has provided delightfully muted direction that's exactly right; Goldin highlights only the most vital moments and lets the audience make up its mind about the rest. Scott Aronow has devised a clever and useful multi-level set to facilitate speedy location changes with the help of Jason Marin's lights, and Chris Weikel's costumes complement things perfectly.

The performances are almost uniformly excellent. Only one stands out: Marc Krinsky makes his Christian officer also comically brutish and simple. Everyone else is painted in vivid shades of grey, giving highly emotional, yet understated, performances that seem, in many cases, ideally lifelike. Hilliard's Inquisitor is free of malice yet sure in his reasoning, Tibor Feldman's Yaacov is vibrantly torn between what's right for his faith and what's right for his family, while Aaron Feldman, Boston, and Fois are never anything but credible as a family unit torn apart in crisis. Even Marilyn Sanabria's difficult role as a vital key to the central mystery is handled with meticulous care.

One or two moments in the production drag, and there are one or two plot twists that are perhaps a bit too predictable, but these are largely inconsequential concerns given everything Levinson and Goldin get right. From its first moments through to its brilliantly inconclusive ending, A Ritual of Faith bubbles with tension and theatricality, making it an absorbing and disturbing examination of what drives everyone's faith in God and themselves.

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Emerging Artist Theatre
A Ritual of Faith
Through April 6
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Lion Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200