Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

The Exorcist

Also see Sharon's review of La Cage aux Folles

Richard Chamberlain, Emily Yetter and
Brooke Shields

When you enter the theatre for the world premiere adaptation of The Exorcist, you'll notice that the set looks church-like, with a massive wooden cross suspended over the stage. There is nothing subtle about it.

The use of this single set means that the few bits of furniture and props around serve multiple duties. The ornate chalice used for Communion serves as the only cup in the place, and if anyone is drinking even the least holy of beverages, it'll be from that cup. The polished wood table makes an elegant dining room table, a passable physician's examining table, and an apparently uncomfortable bed for Regan to thrash around on.

The single set also has the entire cast sitting around the action, ready to join in when necessary. Sometimes, however, John Doyle's staging does not bother to have characters leave center stage when the action no longer concerns them; the others just act around them. Thus, Regan, her mother, and her psychiatrist are all motionless center stage while two other characters talk at each other from opposite sides of the stage. It's awkward and unnecessary.

It also serves to illustrate that, for an intimate production, there are actually too many people in this play. Sure, there are the characters you definitely need: Regan, the demon-possessed 12-year-old (played by much older Emily Yetter, whose line readings don't come off as young as her words would imply); her mother, the famous actress, Chris (Brooke Shields, famous enough to pretty much play herself here); the young priest, Father Karras (David Wilson Barnes, serviceable); and the old priest, Father Merrin (Richard Chamberlain, more on him later). I even see the necessity for Chris's director and friend Burke Dennings (Harry Groener, unrecognizable as the likeable drunk); and the psychiatrist who first hypnotizes Regan (Stephen Bogardus). But there is no real justification for a second doctor (Tom Nelis, unmemorable), a third priest (Manoel Felciano, wholly wasted), and Chris's assistant Carla, the Tituba of the piece (Roslyn Ruff, who infuses the character with decency).

In retrospect, some of the extra characters are in there so that while the young priest and the old priest are busy conducting the exorcism, there will be four spare male actors around to be playing the demon. Indeed, in an interview in the show's program, writer John Peilmeier explains that, in his adaptation, he "very much wanted the demon to be a presence in the play, not a voice coming out of a child." Reading this in the program, envisioning the demon somehow manifesting in the play, I thought this was a bad idea. But, actually, it's pulled off pretty delicately; the demon actors are generally off to the sides of the stage, simply voicing the demon (or whispering evilly). They only rarely become physically involved in the action. And, in all honesty, the very best moment in the entire play comes when one of the demon actors breaks off from the group in order to physically and emotionally torment another character. It's quick, unexpected, and, above all, theatrical. That moment makes genuine use of the medium of stage. Unfortunately, nothing else in this adaptation rises to anywhere near that level.

Perhaps the biggest mistake Peilmeier made is his use of Father Merrin as a narrator. Not content to let his play about fighting demons (real and otherwise) speak for itself, Peilmeier has Father Merrin come downstage in between scenes and pontificate on the nature of evil and its place in the world. It's wholly unnecessary, and Chamberlain's delivery (in which he acts as though every sentence is of tremendous importance) does not help matters. Even worse, once Father Merrin actually enters the main action of the play, he suggests—through one ambiguous line, one unambiguous gesture, and a very unfortunate pause—that the demon inhabiting Regan is actually after the souls of everyone in the audience. It's very nearly laughable, and kills what should have been dramatic tension.

It should also be mentioned that, for a play that wants to distance itself from the movie, the play is comprised of numerous quick movie-like scenes. When, early in the play, a possessed Regan yells something inappropriate to her doctor, the scene quickly ends. But there is more dramatic potential here. Regan's mother was standing right there. How would she react? Apologize to the doctor? Chastise the child? Demand a better diagnosis? I would much rather have seen Regan's mother evolve toward believing the unbelievable reality about her daughter than had Father Merrin pop in to once again lecture about the metaphysical implications of what we've seen.

Technical credits are brilliant and ineffective at once. Sound effects (Dan Moses Schreier) ranged from the suitably creepy background breathing to the overly loud and not-quite-right sound of urine flowing. The lighting (Jane Cox) actually seems to pulsate, subtly getting brighter and darker within a scene—an excellent effect until I noticed it and started watching for it, rather than paying attention to the actors. Teller (of "Penn and" fame) is credited as Creative Consultant, but there's really only a single effect he seems to be responsible for—with his resume, and this title, I expected more. Unfortunately, the same could be said of the entire show.

The Exorcist runs at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through August 12, 2012. For tickets and information, see

The Geffen Playhouse —Randall Arney, Artistic Director; Ken Novice, Managing Director; Frank G. Mancuso, Chairman of the Board —presents The Exorcist. A play by John Pielmeier, adapted from the novel by William Peter Blatty. Scenic & Costume Design Scott Pask; Lighting Design Jane Cox; Sound Design Dan Moses Schreier; Music Sir John Tavener; Creative Consultant Teller. Casting Telsey + Company, Phyllis Schuringa; Production Stage Manager Adam John Hunger; Assistant Stage Manager Young Ji. Directed by John Doyle.

Father Merrin —Richard Chamberlain
Chris MacNeil —Brooke Shields
Burke Dennings —Harry Groener
Carla —Roslyn Ruff
Regan MacNeil —Emily Yetter
Father Joe —Manoel Felciano
Father Damien Karras —David Wilson Barnes
Dr. Klein —Tom Nelis
Dr. Strong —Stephen Bogardus

: Photo by Michael Lamont

- Sharon Perlmutter