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Sin: A Cardinal Deposed

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Perhaps a step above the epistolary play in terms of theatrical effectiveness is the recreation play. After all, plays based on transcripts of actual occurrences do have the benefit of having been genuinely dramatic at one time. Regardless, the author of such a play must still contend with the difficult task of making possibly sedate situations and dialogue interesting onstage.

In attempting that with his play Sin: A Cardinal Deposed, which just opened at the Clurman Theatre, Michael Murphy has not quite succeeded. He trades in on emotionally charged subject matter (the Boston Catholic priest sex abuse scandal), has a celebrity type appear as a character (Bernard Law, the cardinal at the center of the controversy), and has an experienced, well-respected actor (John Cullum) to lend the production some gravitas. He even has an excellent director (Carl Forsman) to help bring it all together.

The only thing Murphy doesn't have is a play. He does have a situation, and one with real potential: Law's spring 2002 deposition, in which he discussed his own history with the Catholic Church, and his possible role in covering up sexual abuse allegations against two Boston priests, Father John Geoghan and Father Paul Shanley. But rather than dramatize the deposition, Murphy has edited, clarified, and combined the court transcripts, related documents, and television interviews into what should be a tight, 90-minute drama.

The resulting show never really works, though one can easily imagine a script similar to this one playing nicely on television or film, where flashbacks and close-ups of the performers' faces and the countless documents they refer to over the course of the evening could help better communicate the story. But even the best court dramas are tricky propositions, and often focus on locations where real conflict can occur at any moment - frequently in the courtroom, or occasionally in the jury room, as the current Broadway production of Twelve Angry Men demonstrates.

But a deposition room? Regardless of the subject of the case, one man's questioning by a generally level-headed attorney and defense by another generally level-headed attorney, while all of them are sitting at a table, is never going to be particularly captivating. That the main features of the deposition room, at least as designed for this production by Nathan Heverin, are a conference table and some accompanying chairs doesn't help. This isn't the kind of play likely to allow actors or a director, even one of Forsman's caliber, much room to maneuver.

As a result, Sin never demonstrates that the deposition room drama is an unjustly unexplored dramatic avenue. It strikes dramatic gold only a couple of times, when Law (Cullum) is carefully caught in a web spun by his prosecutor (Thomas Jay Ryan), and during a lengthy and illuminating discussion on the differences between mortal and unpardonable sins. It's during these times that the play's latent subtext about the relationship between truth and faith is made most clear and most theatrical; it also provides a nice respite from the otherwise numbing back-and-forth of the dialogue.

Some attempt is made to introduce some variety by having two performers (Dan Daily and Cynthia Darlow) appear at the sides of the stage and recite a few of the letters used as evidence. While Daily and Darlow are both fine, the impact of the story isn't really increased: Only once, in a moving letter read by Darlow from a victim's mother, do the letters provide important contextual information; most of the time, particularly when Daily plays a confusingly large number of different priests, these monologues feel like filler.

So does much of the rest of the play, though it's well-performed filler. Ryan dominates the proceedings with his relentlessness, and does so well with his limited material that you can't help but wish he had a real character to play. As Law's attorney, John Leonard Thompson does little more than raise objections about a number of subjects, but he does it with panache. Cullum brings genuinely magisterial qualities to Law, and is generally convincing when not having trouble with his lines.

The show's most vital performance comes from Pablo T. Schreiber, portraying one of Geoghan's most outspoken victims, Patrick McSorley. Though Patrick sits silently during most of the deposition, he takes center stage at the play's end to recount his personal tale of abuse he experienced when he was 12 years old. The recollection is moving and horrifying, and is delivered by Schreiber with such a quiet, heartbreaking grace, you're reminded of how less truly can be more.

At least Schreiber, and by extension Murphy, have found some virtue in Sin. No one, however, has found quite enough.

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The New Group
Sin: A Cardinal Deposed
Through December 4
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Theatre Row / The Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge