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100 Saints You Should Know

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Janel Moloney and Jeremy Shamos
Photo by Joan Marcus.

As a firm opponent of eating in the theater, I can't advise you to bring food to Playwrights Horizons for purposes of snacking during Kate Fodor's new play, 100 Saints You Should Know. (At any rate, there's an intermission and concessions in the lobby.) But if you go, you must be prepared - Ethan McSweeny's production so highlights the debilitating starvation of the body and soul that you could find yourself ravenous long before this unsettlingly attractive play reaches its conclusion.

This is true in more ways than one. Though there are two supremely satisfying courses on offer here - they're named Jeremy Shamos and Janel Moloney - Fodor and McSweeny have stopped considerably short of laying out a full feast. But while you might wish for more original or complicated explorations of questions about faith and faithlessness, the isolated moments of inspiration and insight to be found in 100 Saints are serenely beautiful theatre.

Not that you'll see them right off. The opening scene, in which Father Matthew McNally (Shamos) first crosses paths with maid-for-hire Theresa (Moloney) while she's scrubbing his rectory toilet, suggests an evening of mundanity. Such notions are not dispelled by the scene that follows, in which Theresa tussles with her rebellious, foul-mouthed teenage daughter Abby (Zoe Kazan), an encounter so transparently expositional that unapologetic blandness promises to be the order of the evening.

It's when Fr. Matthew arrives at the home of his mother Colleen (Lois Smith) that it becomes evident things are not what they seem; even the few tidbits we've already garnered take on additional depth. Fr. Matthew, apparently on vacation from his church, has a relationship with his mother only moderately more functional than that of Theresa and Abby. Whether ordering groceries or playing Scrabble, it's clear that Colleen and her son have never quite come to terms with the antiquated family expectations that led Matthew into the priesthood - and have now got him reading Dark Night of the Soul.

The precise details of Matthew's personal dark nights are only gradually revealed, mostly in the wake of Theresa's arriving at Colleen's house to return Matthew the book he left behind in his hastier-than-described exit. What forced Matthew to flee from the Church proves both predictable and surprising, a familiar concern floating on less-familiar waters that force this servant of God to be seen as someone much more human.

Fodor treats the subject, and Matthew himself, with a sensitivity and respect the clergy isn't always afforded onstage, which Shamos expertly complements with a shoulder-shrugging affability that coats the character's inborn need for connection. His Matthew is both a source of comfort to those in need, as well as a font of anguish himself - he's being forced to cope with feelings and desires he's not only never reconciled, but have scarcely been acknowledged at any point in his upbringing or his Harvard education.

But Shamos never wallows in the self-indulgence that would allow Matthew - or you - full, easy release. He controls and restricts his pain, releasing it so slowly and tenderly that you might find yourself overwhelmed before you're aware of feeling anything at all. The plaintiveness with which he recites from Dark Night of the Soul, expresses his own needs aloud for the first time, or even merely justifies his alleged transgressions within his own mind create the quietly heart-rending fireworks that elevate the play to its most captivating places.

Zoe Kazan and Will Rogers
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Comparable care has unfortunately not been exerted in the subplot that unites warring mother and daughter with cold-warring mother and son. Grocery delivery boy Garrett (Will Rogers) links the two families, needing Matthew's services but confessing his perceived sins instead to Abby, with catastrophic results. Kazan's overly snobbish portrayal doesn't help matters, but as her role is a haphazard representation of a tormented girl at the threshold of adulthood, one can't fault her too much. Rogers's performance, though, is both inept and damaging: Making what on the page is a sweet-hearted but confused boy, who just wants to live a life he considers normal, into a mentally challenged societal reject too clueless to withstand Abby's tinkering makes sympathizing with him impossible. And that's crucial for the second act to achieve its full, suffocating impact.

The second act is, however, in every other way an improvement on the first, forcing the characters to confront themselves and their inner spiritual beings in increasingly affecting ways. Its progression from human infancy to outright apotheosis is buoyed by Shamos at his most ingratiating and emotionally stripped and Moloney, who unlocks every intricacy in a woman who doesn't have all the answers she thought she did. Her first-act fidgeting and frustration morphs into actions of lasting significance, whether sneaking a cigarette or stroking Matthew's hair in what each considers their lowest moment. Moloney makes Theresa's tentative first steps toward God every bit as compelling as Matthew's meandering away from Him.

Smith does what she can to depict Colleen's own journey, but has been directed by McSweeny to be little more than Irish and bossy - two traits that don't add many details to the somewhat stilted character. But the actress adds gravitas and grace to the proceedings, which can often just compensate for the sketchiness that makes Colleen, like Abby and Garrett, seem like an unfinished fixture in an opulent setting. Neither Smith's performance nor the play will ease your hunger completely, but even with its flaws, 100 Saints You Should Know is more nourishing than your average theatrical fare.

100 Saints You Should Know
Through September 30
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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