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The Preacher and the Shrink

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere

Tom Galantich and Dee Hoty
Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Despite its title, which sounds like the set-up or punchline of a naughty joke, and its advertising art, which looks like something you might see on the cover of a pulp novel, Merle Good's The Preacher and the Shrink purports to be a very serious play. Among the subjects covered herein are sexual misconduct, terminal cancer, the question of whether or not organized religion is a fraud - and one more huge, hot-button issue that can't be revealed because it would be considered a "spoiler." In truth, though, the play was spoiled by its author, who treats these weighty matters so ineptly that the result is outright offensive.

The plot: Constance Hunter (played by Adria Vitlar), a young professor of poetry, reveals to psychiatrist Alexandra Bloomfield (Dee Hoty) that, years earlier, she was groped by Rev. David Wheeler (Mat Hostetler), who serves at the church where Connie's father, Dr. Michael Hamilton (Tom Galantich) is pastor.

Seething with anger at this violation, but even more so because she feels her father didn't grieve deeply enough over her mother's slow, painful death from cancer, Constance is one of the most infuriating characters ever to set foot on a stage. Alternating between foul-mouthed pronouncements, withering sarcasm, and lugubrious self-pity, she flies into attack mode at the drop of a hat, so volatile as to make the leading female character in David Mamet's Oleanna seem a model of reasonable, level-headed maturity by comparison. Constance shrilly accuses people of "playing mind games" with her, but that's exactly what she does to others.

We know she's a nut job from the moment when she aggressively threatens to bare her breasts in Dr. Bloomfield's office, for some twisted reason related to her morbid fear of contracting cancer as did her mother. Believe it or not, it's all downhill from there. You may think Good's script has reached rock bottom when, in the middle of a confrontation with David, Constance coyly says to him, "You touched my titties!" But no; the demand she makes of her father in return for agreeing not to file a complaint against David is so outrageous, it's hard to believe any playwright could have conceived it and thought for a moment that any audience would find it remotely credible.

The ham-fisted writing is by no means limited to the role of Constance. When Dr. Bloomfield and Pastor Hutchinson meet for the first time after many years, she immediately starts insulting him and his religion in away that seems 100 percent out of character for a respected psychiatrist, whatever their previous relationship. (More on that later . . .) When Hutchinson first informs David of the grievous charge Constance plans to level against him, he drops that bomb while calmly and leisurely sipping a cup of coffee. And although there are one or two moments when David appears to realize that his life and career may well be destroyed by allegations of sexual misconduct, his general level of anxiety seems more appropriate to the loss of a cufflink.

The Preacher and the Shrink is a mess from top to bottom. Aside from the highly inappropriate, jokey quality of the play's title, it's misleading in that the relationship between Hamilton and Bloomfield is by no means the crux of the story —even though we learn that they had an affair many years ago at a church camp, a plot point that seems to have been inserted solely for a sort-of-payoff that sends crazy Connie over the edge and into the abyss.

All of the actors are at sea, with the playwright unable to throw them a lifeline. Hoty works hard to present Dr. Bloomfield as a human being rather than a lame construct; but not even Laurette Taylor could have made the line sound natural when, at a point where Pastor Hamilton's life has almost completely fallen apart, Bloomfield turns to him and says, "Mike, you have every reason to be upset and angry." Similarly, it's doubtful that Elia Kazan could have directed this script in such a way as to make it palatable, though Kazan would surely have been more successful than Steven Yuhasz in helping the actors consistently communicate how high the stakes are.

To fully catalog the infelicities of this play would require a 3,000 word review; better to stop here and hope the point has been made. A few precious moments of good theater come from Nicholas Urda in the brief role of Steve Richardson, a church member whose daughter is suffering from leukemia; the character has so few lines that the playwright didn't really have a chance to sabotage the actor, and Urda fills in the blanks with a warm, compelling performance. Other than that, The Preacher and the Shrink is at once unnecessary and despicable, a highly unfortunate combination to say the least.

The Preacher and the Shrink
Through January 4
Beckett Theater, 410 West 42nd between 9th & 10th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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