Bill C. Davis' aptly-titled "Mass Appeal," a two-character comedy that came to the Booth last evening, is an engaging piece of work that does run on far too long, but whose principal character, an elderly priest with a friendly flock, a humorous outlook, and a considerable fondness for wine, provides a seasoned performer with a field day. Lucky, indeed, is this production in having Milo O'Shea, who created the role last year at the Manhattan Theater Club, to play Father Tim Farley. His delightful performance, flawless down to the smallest detail under Geraldine Fitzgerald's warmly appreciative direction, almost allows us to overlook the work's essential glibness.
Father Tim, on comfortable terms with his parishioners, who keep him supplied with the sparkling burgundy he fancies, is slowly and, as it happens, irrevocably shaken out of his complacency by a young seminarian placed under his tutelage. The student, Mark Dolson, played with insufficient conviction by Michael O'Keefe, (a late replacement for the actor who created the role only to be incapacitated during rehearsals), aspires to the priesthood and a celibate life after a lively period as a bisexual. So ardent is he to spread enlightenment that he antagonizes his listeners instead of mollifying them after Father Tim's fasion.
The evening, in which the telephone is a necessary adjunct (calls between Father Tim and the monsignor who will eventually decree the seminarian's fate, and between the priest and his secretary), shuttles back and forth between the pulpit and office of the Church of St. Francis, but is mainly set in the office. Over an autumn, affection and understanding are built up between the two men, and though their relationship results in career reversals for both, the play closes on a note of faith and goodwill.
"Mass Appeal" is not far from being a "Going My Way" for the '80s (Father Tim even refers to that movie at one point), and the good father is a stock character enlivened by some fresh insights in the writing, just as the seminarian is merely Rebellious Youth in a novel setting.
There is little point, though, in quibbling over a work that aims for mass appeal even as it toys, always supportively, with the questions of women in the priesthood, the rights of individuals to their own sexual preferences, and freedom of expression in the pulpit. For the most part, "Mass Appeal" is concerned with friendship and its demands. And if the evening belongs overwhelmingly to O'Shea, it's because this fine actor is at the top of his form.
As a piece of dramatic art, "Mass Appeal" is a mild brew, indeed, but at the risk of sounding blasphemous, I suggest that to miss O'Shea's Father Tim just might be more sinful than missing Sunday mass.
In life, soft slippered expediency often comes against the hobnailed boots of morality - and nowhere more, one would imagine, than in the Church.
It must be a continuing battle between the practice of perfection and the perfection of practice. This is very broadly the concern of Bill C. Davis' play Mass Appeal, which opened last night at the Booth Theater.
In Mass Appeal, Davis punches straight from the pulpit. The play opens with Father Tim Farley giving a sermon on "The Crises in Current Catholicism." He is a little like all those Irish priests Pat O'Brien used to play in the movies, but gone upscale and moved to Sutton Place.
Father Farley is well aware of the sins of the flesh, some, perhaps a little too intimately. He has an untoward passion for sparkling burgundy, donated to him by loyal parishioners, and drives a flashy Mercedes. But he is a good, if sometimes weak soul, very popular in his parish and prepared to lie for his faith.
His sermon this particular Sunday is what he calls a dialogue sermon. People are invited to ask questions, even to make statements. One question comes from a young man in running shoes and track suit. He insists on knowing whether Father Farley thinks that women should be ordained as priests. The young man does, and puts his arguments most forcefully.
It turns out the interrupter is Mark Dolson, a student from the local seminary. Eventually the two men become friends, and when Mark is appointed a deacon - in the Roman Catholic Church this is the lay bridge of a seminarist and a priest, he joins Father Farley in his parish.
The priest's tippling and gentle hypocrisy horrifies Mark. And Father Farley receives perhaps a greater shock when Mark blithely informs him that before finding his vocation he was on "a three-year orgy in Paris," sleeping with men and women. However, he found salvation could not come through the body, and he is now content to be celibate.
Against the good Father's avuncular advice, he tells all to the monsignor who heads the seminary. The events following, not least their ambiguous resolution, are really the only action in a play that is essentially a joke about - not against - the Church, the characters of these two men, and the differing ways they interpret religion.
Lawyers, churchmen and actors have a great deal in common - they all address an audience, be it a jury, a congregation or a bevy of benefit ladies. This has long been recognized by playwrights in the case of lawyers. But few plays are given a religious setting.
It was smart to see the possibilities of this kind of play, and Davis has written it with a sprightly, elfin wit. The basic premise, of course, is that priests are men first and priests second. So we find Father Farley offering such sound common sense as: "The collection comes after the sermon - it is a kind of Nielsen rating."
These are all jokes of good nature rather than satiric bite, they massage rather than challenge. Yet the show will charm most people with its unabashed and unashamed cuteness.
The play's staging is by Geraldine Fitzgerald, in her directorial debut. A major actress herself, her direction is clearly intended to do the actors proud. For example, there is one wonderful adroit trick with a bottle, that surely only an actor would have dreamt up, and the play is very neatly paced with an instinctive feel for the rhythm of the humor.
The scenery by David Gropman and the costumes by William Ivey Long are pleasant enough, but what goes a long way to making the play are the performances by Milo O'Shea as Father Farley and Michael O'Keefe as Mark.
O'Shea is an adorable actor. His expression always seems to be slipping off his face, and his timing is like that of a champion boxer.
O'Keefe, as we have noticed before, is an actor of enormous promise that is starting to turn over into steady achievement. Best known for his movie role in The Great Santini, he produces a mixture of saintliness, moral indignation, priggishness and indifference that is downright dazzling.
And, as Father Farley says of Mark in the play: "He has a certain James Dean quality."
A warmly enjoyable evening, then, full of home truths and unanswered questions. Best of all - fun.
''Love goes its own course,'' says one of the two characters in Bill C. Davis's ''Mass Appeal.'' The same might be said of good writing. In this modest, winning play, Mr. Davis has taken a seemingly stock situation - rebellious young seminarian confronts conservative middle-aged priest - and has insisted on letting it go its own passionate course. The result is a work that happily defies our pat expectations. ''Mass Appeal,'' it turns out, is not preoccupied with generational or theological conflict; nor is it exclusively about the Roman Catholic Church. By letting his characters grow and change, Mr. Davis has written a play that lives up to the promise of its title - a tender comedy about the meaning and power of both secular and religious love.
''Mass Appeal'' is its young author's first full-length work to be produced in New York. Like another impressive playwriting debut, Beth Henley's ''Crimes of the Heart,'' it received its original local production at the Manhattan Theater Club. Last night, it arrived at the Booth, once again under the direction of Geraldine Fitzgerald and a little the worse for wear. But if the Broadway version of ''Mass Appeal'' is somewhat inferior to its predecessor, it still delivers much of the laughter and strong feeling of Mr. Davis's writing. It also brings back the Irish actor Milo O'Shea in the finest performance of his New York career.
Mr. O'Shea plays Father Tim Farley, a prosperous, Mercedes-driving American priest much beloved by his flock for his ''tact'' and good humor. A master at delivering entertaining sermons in his impish brogue, Farley is also an agile parish politician who preserves his popularity by following the ''Nielsen ratings'' of the collection plate. Not for him are controversial stands on church issues. ''Should women be priests?,'' he asks in the play's opening sermon - only to duck his own question by announcing that the clergy shouldn't try to ''sway people's viewpoints.''
Enter the seminarian Mark Dolson (Michael O'Keefe), a child of the 60's who is utterly contemptuous of Farley's ''song-and-dance theology.'' Mark wants to be a priest precisely because he does believe that ''serious social and moral issues can be attended to from the pulpit.'' Once he comes under Farley's tutelage, the young man goads the elder for his clerical cowardice. ''What you believe,'' says Mark, ''has to be more important than what your congregation thinks of you.''
Dry as this conflict may sound, Mr. Davis opens it up right away in a series of funny first encounters. Rather than respond to Mark's taunts with anger, Farley good-naturedly tries to reshape the seminarian in his own image. Mark wants to deliver sermons that browbeat the congregation for its ''mink hats, cashmere coats and blue hair''; Farley instructs him to write ''friendly sermons'' with ''a nice Norman Rockwell setting'' instead. The priest takes a similarly cynical tack as he lectures his protege on the virtues of coddling grief-stricken parishioners with ''harmless lies.'' ''Our job,'' says Farley, is to ''bring common grief to the heights of the inconsolable by saying something inane.'' He soon demonstrates just what comic heights such inane ''creative counseling'' can reach.
But Farley can't control Mark, who is dead set on going his own way, even if that means jeopardizing his prospects for admission to the priesthood. It's then that ''Mass Appeal'' deepens the relationship between the two men, whose growing, symbiotic love for each other gradually enhances the love they each bring to their religious calling. In Mark, the flabby Farley rediscovers the young, firebrand priest that he, too, once was in his streetcorner preaching days. He tries to rouse himself from timidity to fight Mark's cause, so that the seminarian's pure, ''lunatic'' righteousness can reawaken the church as it has him.
Mark, in turn, looks to Farley for another kind of help. Emotionally blocked from a hurtful three-year teen-age binge of communal bisexuality, the young man realizes that Farley's gift for mass appeal is what he needs if he is ever to communicate his religious fervor to the faithful.
The problem with the new ''Mass Appeal'' is that Mr. O'Keefe, who has succeeded Eric Roberts as Mark, seems too blocked - at times almost stiff. He's a talented actor who has the requisite presence and androgynous spirit for the seminarian, but he lacks the incandescent ingenuousness with which Mr. Roberts fired the role. Even when he finally reaches out to Farley in Act II, Mr. O'Keefe still seems a shade too reserved, and the play's emotional temperature lowers as a result. One hopes that he'll soon loosen up, for Miss Fitzgerald has otherwise met the demands of moving ''Mass Appeal'' to a larger stage.
Mr. O'Shea is better than ever. He brings a stand-up comic's mischievousness and crackling timing to the pulpit for his Act I sermons. In Act II, when Farley is increasingly revealed as a lost, not to mention alcoholic, soul, the roguish jester fades away and we see a sad, red-faced buffoon stumbling about his office to confront the sham of his life. But the actor and the play reach their most touching communion a bit later, when Father Farley finally rises from his own ashes to rededicate himself to a simple faith. ''This is the first time I haven't tried to win your love,'' he says quietly, descending from his pulpit to face his congregation eye-to-eye. ''Only now is love possible.'' And we suddenly see just how far a course this once-frightened man has run to regain the courage it takes to be humble before his God.