A young nun gives birth unattended in her room, and shortly after, the infant, strangled by the umbilical cord, is found wrapped in bloody sheets in a nearby wastebasket. Who killed it, and who fathered it? You'll find the answer to only one of these questions in John Pielmeier's "Agnes of God," which came to the Music Box last evening like a reluctant penitent shambling toward the confessional.
Faint echoes of Peter Shaffer's "Equus" can be heard as a psychiatrist, in this instance a handsome woman (Elizabeth Ashley), comes to have second thoughts about her pragmatism, as well as her atheism, when faced with a situation having supernatural overtones. But, lacking Shaffer's skill as a dramatist, Pielmeier is unable to bring it off. Instead, we wind up with a good deal of mumbo-jumbo obscuring the central issue, which has to do with faith and miracles.
Two fine performances and one serviceable one help in this play for three women, but not enough. Amanda Plummer is resourceful and entirely believable, even when throwing fits while under hypnosis, as the waiflike suspect Sister Agnes whose childhood and very mind were warped by a sadistic and contemptuous mother, and who has even given birth either by God's hand or man's or even, heaven forbid, by parthenogenesis. And Elizabeth Ashley, who as a court-appointed psychiatrist investigates the matter, is good to look at and listen to in another of the actress' mettlesome performances, even though she is saddled with several of those narrative bridges (including opening and closing addresses to the audience) our playwrights seem to be relying on more and more frequently.
The remaining member of the cast is Geraldine Page who, as Mother Miriam, the contemplative order's mother superior, has some secrets of her own to disclose, though they're not terribly interesting nor even especially pertinent.
The play, acted out on an almost bare stage (two simple wood chairs, a chrome smoke stand, and a sloping back wall), delves into the psyche of the psychiatrist, an ex-Catholic, even as she is exploring the mind of the accused, Agnes. Actually, I wouldn't let Dr. Martha Livingstone, as she is called, treat me for a hangnail, let alone a case of the jitters, so unlikely is her behavior. And standing out among the playwright's many little signposts is his use of the cigaret habit. Dr. Martha is a chain-smoker, which probably bothers the smartly tailored star as much as it does the playgoers in the first few rows, until, with her devout atheism shaken toward the end (we are first cued into this when we catch her tentatively crossing herself), we notice the smoke stand upstage and unused.
If no other miracle has been revealed during the evening (we are finally left pondering whether the child could really have been God's or that of some field hand tilling the wrong row), at least this sudden, unconscious kicking of the habit can pass as one.
Michael Lindsay-Hogg has directed the piece with simple efficiency, for the most part, allowing himself a little leeway only during Agnes' fits, in one of which she walks part way up the furled rear wall and slides down again in what appeared to be the poor girl's only bit of fun.
And speaking of fun, if I seem to be making light of a work dealing with religious faith, it's because the author himself repeatedly does so, whether in allowing the mother superior to titillate us with an occasional smutty line or, in one of the play's cozier exchanges, having the latter and Dr. Livingstone ponder on which saints would have been cigaret fiends (Mother Miriam, a mother in fact, was, before being widowed and joining the order, a two-pack-a-day inhaler) and what brands they might have chosen.
Although the play's basic situation is a provocative one, Pielmeier hasn't been able to make much sense of it despite the efforts of three accomplished actresses.
Some plays are so concerned with being theatrical that they forget to be dramatic. I presume that Agnes of God, which opened at the Music Box Theater last night, falls rather uneasily and noisily into that category.
Yet make no mistake about it - while admittedly generating more light than heat, it is unquestionably blindingly theatrical. It also contains three sensationally powered performances calculated to wring your withers, wherever they may be.
John Pielmeier's play is apparently founded on fact - a very grisly fact. It is based on infanticide in a nunnery: "The baby was found dead in a wastebasket with its umbilical cord tied around its neck."
The mother is a young nun called Agnes, sweet-natured girl, with a singing voice like an angel. She claims to have no recollection of its conception, birth or murder. In the circumstances a court psychiatrist is sent to report on the girl - and the play, in effect, is the psychiatrist's story. The psychiatrist is a strange woman. A lapsed Catholic, she has a grudge against nuns because she feels their neglect killed her sister while she was a novitiate.
She tells us, as if she expected to be believed, that she keeps going to see Garbo in Camille because she hopes one day it will have a happy ending. Like many psychiatrists in real life, her own mental health is not the most robust. In fact, she is clearly a neurotic. However, she is certainly better balanced than the other two characters, the jocular Mother Superior and Agnes herself.
As the psychiatrist proceeds as narrator and detective-like investigator, the comparison with Peter Shaffer's better crafted play Equus becomes inevitable. Because both are essentially explorations into the unusual individual, the genius, the saint, the one touched by God. In Pielmeier's play even the title, presumably a bad Latin pun on Agnus Dei, Lamb of God, implies Agnes' spiritual provenance. She is a creator of miracles.
As the play proceeds, the psychiatrist becomes "more and more entranced with Agnes." Slowly Agnes' story is revealed - her abuse and molestation by her mother, her simplicity, even an unusual episode where the palms of her hands bleed - spontaneously.
The Mother Superior, worldly, even crafty, and yet still with blind faith, believes that possibly there was no father, and that the conception occurred through some form of parthenogenesis. This would be, as she points out, "nothing more than a slightly miraculous scientific event."
But as the battle lines are drawn up, the psychiatrist still insists, "This is murder we are dealing with." Murder? More like hokum to me. And religio-psychological hokum at that. Even the playwright - after a load of blathering and a few surprises - comes to no decision, offering merely an outcome.
Yet the play does provide for three grandstand, grand-slam performances from its well-balanced trio of actresses. Michael Lindsay-Hogg has staged the play as if it were a series of boxing bouts, getting the maximum dramatic mileage from the impact of the situation, and removing our attention from the barrenness of the play's pretensions. A smart, glossy job of glossing over.
But when we are down to the wire it is up to the three actresses themselves lost in the stark simplicity of Eugene Lee's ark-like setting that makes the play seem more like a dramatic reading than a theatrical presentation, quite simply to deliver. They do.
Amanda Plummer as Agnes has the simplest yet most showy role. She is wonderful, whether conveying saint-like innocence, or struggling with the simulated pangs of childbirth brought on by hypnosis, she never loses her always fragile credibility.
In the devious yet not unsympathetic role of the Mother Superior, Geraldine Page seems wise and conniving, funny and yet not altogether unsinister - a complex and brilliantly etched portrayal.
The fulcrum of the piece is, however, based on the chain-smoking psychiatrist, and Elizabeth Ashley, almost attacking the inside of her skin with anxiety, manages to make neuroticism beautiful. A masterly performance.
So there it is - cleverly executed blood and guts evening in the theater with aspirations beyond dramatic butchery. However, as with so much theological musing, there is less in this than meets the sky.
When Elizabeth Ashley marches forward to give the opening speech in John Pielmeier's ''Agnes of God,'' you instantly feel that you're in good hands. Miss Ashley wears a professional woman's no-nonsense suit, and there's no-nonsense authority in everything she does. Her eyes are ablaze; her voice snakes through the Music Box as insistently as the smoke of her cigarette; her monologue lays out Mr. Pielmeier's premise with brisk, eloquent efficiency.
The stark set Miss Ashley inhabits at the Music Box also promises a trajectory of pure, uncluttered theater: Eugene Lee has designed a curving expanse of blond wood that rises from the floor to the skies and contains only two chairs and one standing ashtray. And, once we meet the occupants of those chairs - no less than Amanda Plummer and Geraldine Page at full throttle - our expectations rise further still.
Equally alluring is Mr. Pielmeier's premise, which is designed to lock his gifted actresses into old-fashioned, to-the-mat conflict. Miss Plummer, in the title role, is an angelic 21-year-old nun facing a manslaughter charge: Although she fervently denies any knowledge of the crime, she is accused of giving birth to a baby in a convent, strangling the child with its umbilical cord and stuffing the corpse into a wastebasket. Miss Page is the nun's mother superior and chief defender. She wonders if there might not be another, supernatural explanation for the seemingly fatherless corpse - a miracle that would clear the devout, unworldly and totally unlikely suspect. Miss Ashley is Dr. Livingstone, the court-appointed psychiatrist determined to get to the bottom of Agnes's case.
So there you have it: a perfectly lurid triangle with a charged-up star at each corner and no extraneous furniture to get in the way. And need I tell you what predictably happens next? ''Agnes of God'' isn't a half-hour old before the playwright takes to shoveling verbal debris on the stage, until the triangle buckles and then breaks under the weight. The actors and the set, it can at least be said, remain sturdy to the end. Miss Plummer, who literally climbs a wall at one point, even manages to take flight.
No playwright who quotes Robertson Davies in the Playbill can be all bad, and the author of ''Agnes'' does show promise. Mr. Pielmeier is capable of humorous digressions about such subjects as cigarette addiction and the possibility that some Hollywood vault contains an alternate, happy final reel to Garbo's ''Camille.'' He also knows how to write fiery scenes, even if they must be induced by a character entering hypnosis. But his play falls apart - ultimately to verge on the ridiculous - because he hasn't figured out how to meld its melodramatic and spiritual concerns. While ''Agnes of God'' aspires to be both a chilling thriller and a stirring reaffirmation of the power of faith, it fails on both counts.
Indeed, one concern cancels the other out. Mr. Pielmeier clearly sides with the mother superior in his play's central argument. He wants to believe that Agnes is ''touched by God'' and that her baby, like the inexplicable stigmata that bloodied the nun's hands before its arrival, was a divine phenomenon. Fair enough, but the audience wants its miracles and its whodunit, too. Mr. Pielmeier instead uses his message to throw a hokus-pocus smokescreen over the baby's paternity: The anticlimactic Act II of ''Agnes of God'' suggests what ''Rosemary's Baby'' or ''The Exorcist'' might be like if they had alternate, cheating final reels.
The philosophical debate that precedes the nonending is too tired to carry the play alone. As Dr. Livingstone and the mother superior plead their respective cases for the transcendent powers of rational medical science and primitive religious belief, the author replays ''Equus'' - even to the extent of drawing arch, explicit contrasts between the psychiatrist's sterile, lonely personal life and her patient's otherworldly, if murderous, religious passion. But this time the rhetoric is usually as pedantic as the sentiments it expresses, and there's not a horse in sight.
The sparring match really comes alive only when Mr. Pielmeier suddenly unveils unexpected, and unconvincing, revelations about his antagonists. Dr. Livingstone proves to be not only a lapsed Catholic - a neat coincidence for the author's dialectical purposes - but one whose sister also died in a convent under questionable circumstances. The mother superior proves not only Agnes's spiritual mother but a blood relative as well - a fact that is dishonestly withheld from the audience for too long. Though these and other bombshells keep us alert, they're too patently gimmicky - or textbook-dry Freudian - to add dimension to the play's characters, suspense or theme. All they really do is stall for time while we wait for the scene in which Agnes finally re-enacts her fateful night of childbirth and the hung jury can be adjourned.
While the actors can't overcome our ever-accelerating disappointment, they often stave off boredom. So does the director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who tirelessly molds arresting tableaux out of agonized bodies and empty space. If Miss Ashley is sometimes mannered of posture, her force of personality is mesmerizing, as is her anguish once she inevitably discovers that, like all psychiatrists in fiction of this sort, she must heal her empty agnostic self. The apple-cheeked Miss Page is blissful in defense of her God, bristling in defense of her young nun, and puckishly funny as she announces her ability ''to smell an ex-Catholic a mile away.''
Miss Plummer doesn't have the role here she had in ''A Taste of Honey,'' but that doesn't throw her. With her ethereal smile, melodious voice and creamy blank slate of a face, she's as close to an angel as we're ever likely to see on Broadway. Once Agnes must exorcise the grueling demons of both her troubled childhood and childbirth, she spills her mutilated guts with a volcanic abandon that moves us at a level the text never touches. A miracle? Not really. While the playwright waits around for divine intervention, Miss Plummer and company simply use their heads and get down to serious work.