Less than two weeks after the Catholic Church was trounced by an angry feminist for not allowing women priests in "Sacrilege," the Anglicans get theirs in David Hare's "Racing Demon," a play about Church of England clergy wrestling with an assortment of crises of faith.
The focal figure is the aging Rev. Lionel Espy, who finds it easier to use his pulpit in working-class South London to address social concerns than to handle ritual, or, as the Bishop of Southwark, his boss, puts it, "to put on a show." The bishop himself is struggling not only with his own doubts but with increasingly ornery subordinates.
Espy has a young associate, Rev. Tony Ferris, who finds himself drifting toward fundamentalism, which makes him increasingly critical of Espy. They have a colleague who is gay, living with a younger man and being hounded by a tabloid journalist.
Any of these situations might have made an arresting play. Taken altogether, they seem more like a PBS documentary. Very seldom do the ruminations of the characters even when they address God have any inner authenticity. More often than not the men are "stating positions."
The female characters seem like afterthoughts. Espy's wife is undergoing a breakdown; neither Espy nor Hare takes a great interest in her. Ferris has a sympathetic girlfriend, but she is essentially a sounding board.
An abused immigrant woman forces Espy and Ferris to "take positions," but her own sorry plight doesn't burden us much.
"Racing Demon" isn't boring, but it never engages us deeply. Given the dryness of the play, there isn't much the actors can do.
Michael Cumpsty has an ebullient enthusiasm as Ferris, first appealing, then appalling. Even an actor of the stature of Josef Sommer can only make Espy a likeable ditherer. George Martin is strong as his harsh bishop. The best parts are actually the cliched, Trollope-like clerics played deliciously by Brian Murray and Paul Giamatti.
Kathleen Chalfant is touching as Espy's wispy wife, and Patrice Johnson handles the thankless role of Ferris' girlfriend skillfully.
"Racing Demon" is well designed and smoothly directed.
Now that Ellen Burstyn, the fiery would-be-priest from "Sacrilege," is unemployed, maybe she can move uptown and breathe a little fire into these tepid Anglicans.
Early in "Racing Demon," David Hare's carefully researched, theatrical if schematic disquisition on the Church of England, the spiritually exhausted Rev. Lionel Espy is being chastised by his old friend and superior, the Rt. Rev. Charlie Allen, Bishop of Southwark. Word has reached the Bishop that Lionel seems to have lost interest in the administration of the sacrament. Lionel doesn't deny the charge. He admits that he's sometimes impatient with ritual, being weighed down by the unrelenting poverty and despair in his London parish.
"I wouldn't even say the church was a joke," Lionel tells the Bishop. "In our area it's an irrelevance. It has no connection to most people's lives." He feels that his obligation is mainly to listen and learn, to understand and serve the ordinary working people.
The Bishop has the manner of a successful but pressed vice president of an automobile company, an executive more concerned by the possibility of a hostile takeover than by the meandering conscience of one of his safety-obsessed division managers. He isn't interested in Lionel's interpretation of his job description. Ritual, he says, is what holds the church together: "As a priest you have only one duty. That's to put on a show."
In other words: get out there and sell.
"Racing Demon," which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, is a lot less arcane than it initially sounds. In examining the politics of the Church of England and in considering its place in contemporary British society, Mr. Hare is not simply doing a muckraking job on one of Britain's oldest institutions. Though his style is almost journalistic and the satire blunt, his concerns are unashamedly moral and spiritual. In "Racing Demon," he's also examining the nature of faith in the late 20th century and the renewed appeal of emotion-infused evangelism or, as one character terms it, "supernatural religion."
Nearly everybody in "Racing Demon" is in midcrisis. In addition to Lionel (Josef Sommer), who's facing a humiliating transfer, and the Bishop (George N. Martin), who's almost speechless with rage at the impending elevation of a woman from priest to bishop, there are Lionel's fellow parish priests: Harry Henderson (Brian Murray), a discreet homosexual being threatened with exposure by a Sunday tabloid, and Tony Ferris (Michael Cumpsty), a decent working-class lad from Bristol who, at God's command, becomes a rabid, born-again Christian. Though he wrecks several lives in the process, he's embraced by a church desperate to increase its box office.
Then, too, there are Frances Parnell (Kathryn Meisle), the sweetly skeptical young woman Tony throws over when Jesus enters his life, and Heather Espy (Kathleen Chalfant), Lionel's prematurely old wife, abandoned not for Jesus but for parish duties that render her superfluous. The only person who survives the crises more or less intact is Lionel's third parish teammate, Donald Bacon (Paul Giamatti), called Streaky, a priest who likes to drink tequila sunrises and buy paperbacks titled "The Meaning of Meaning" and "How to Ask Why," though he never gets around to reading them.
There's no shortage of stories in "Racing Demon," each one shaped to illuminate some aspect of the overall theme. Though Mr. Hare appears to have no humor, he has wit. He can write big satisfying scenes in which generic characters suddenly become as spontaneous and idiosyncratic as they are articulate.
This is especially true of Tony, who, as events progress, emerges as a kind of heaven-sent villain and the most arresting character in the play. This is in part because he's the only major character who isn't passive. There's a marvelous scene in which he describes the Anglican Church's distaste for evangelicals as being "a matter of class." Evangelicals, he says, drink sweet sherry, keep parakeets and have ducks in formations on their walls.
His kicker: "They also have the distressing down-market habit of trying to get people emotionally involved."
Mr. Hare, who came of age in the politicized late 1960's, belongs to the post-Pinter, post-Stoppard generation of English playwrights, but his work, in spite of its cinematic use of stage space, belongs to an earlier theatrical tradition. Being socially committed, he writes about issues for today, as he did in "Plenty," the work for which he's best known in this country. His plays are well made: there's never any doubt about who the characters are, what their problems are or how those problems relate to the world immediately outside the theater.
Yet for all of Mr. Hare's caustic anti-establishmentarianism, "Racing Demon" is never dangerous. It doesn't shock. It represents a most reassuring kind of theater. Characters meet, confront issues, take positions and move on to face the consequences. The ideas, which are provocative, are carefully presented. If you are of a mind to, you can sink your teeth into them. You don't necessarily have to swallow.
It's this overstuffed quality that Richard Eyre, who also directed the play in 1990 at the Royal National Theater in London, capitalizes on in the handsome new Beaumont production. Bob Crowley's black-and-white unit set manages to look rich though it's actually spare: a great open space dominated by the outlines of a huge cross at stage center. With the help of Mark Henderson's lighting and Wendall K. Harrington's projections, the area can be as large as a cathedral one minute and as pinched as a cheap bed-sitter the next.
Most important, Mr. Eyre (who's retiring as the Royal National's artistic director in September 1997) has assembled a cast of exceptionally good American actors who play their English roles with grace and vocal ease. Note in particular Mr. Sommer, Mr. Cumpsty, Mr. Murray and Denis O'Hare, who appears as the gallant Harry's Scottish lover.
Unlike Trevor Nunn, who somehow managed to botch his elegant London production of "Arcadia" when he restaged it at the Beaumont, Mr. Eyre has preserved not only the sense of something you might see at the Royal National, but also the spirit. "Racing Demon" may not be great drama, but it's fully realized and it's meaty. Tea is available in the lobby.
The circles of disenfranchisement at work in "Racing Demon" are concentric, like the tightening rings of a target whose bull's-eye is the Church of England. The largest ring is the flock itself, which has abandoned the churches. For their part, the priests have returned the favor, going through the motions of administering the sacraments to a shrinking congregation that has long since turned elsewhere -- to drugs, cults, television, gangs -- for redemption. Such alienation inevitably leads to the kind of institutional cannibalism that is at the center of this unsettling, deeply pessimistic play. "The church isn't a joke, it's an irrelevance," exclaims Lionel Espy (Josef Sommer), an inner-city priest for whom practical service to his struggling immigrant parishioners takes precedence over the rituals to which his superiors wish he would pay more attention on the theory that rite makes might.
Hare has always written movingly about the fractures between the world as we might like it to be and the one that is, from the postwar activists without a cause in "Plenty" to the flawed, lost souls of "A Map of the World" and "The Secret Rapture." But with "Racing Demon" five years ago, followed by "Murmuring Judges" and "Absence of War"-- all first produced at London's Royal National Theatre -- Hare began looking at the institutions that are at the heart of much of British life. Not unexpectedly, he found plenty wanting.
Lionel is vulnerable to attacks from below as well as above. His young new curate, Tony (Michael Cumpsty), has an evangelical zeal Lionel can see right through yet can do nothing to contain. Tony is appalled at Lionel's reluctance to bring Jesus into his ministering, linking it to the fact that the church is empty on Sunday mornings. Tony also has caught the ear of the bishop (George N. Martin), who warns Lionel at the play's outset that he'd better get with the program -- or there will be consequences. "Put on a show!" the bishop says.
Hare is never one to draw characters in black-and-white. Lionel is a mess whose wife (Kathleen Chalfant) is having a nervous breakdown and whose grown daughter seems nowhere to be found. More importantly, he is no paragon of reformism over ritual: "You parade your so-called humility until it becomes a disgusting sort of pride," the bishop complains, and while there's little question where our sympathy falls, the man has a point.
Lionel's conversational relationship with God doesn't exactly translate into an active search for new answers to old questions, or even a bold break with doctrine. Instead, he and his cronies have become a kind of protection racket, and the only thing they're passionate about protecting is their jobs. The play's funniest scene is set at the Savoy, where the friends have come to waylay Tony before a dinner with the bishop, only to get smashed on tequila sunrises.
Meanwhile, Tony's a fanatic quickly devolving into a crackpot. He leaves his lover Frances (Kathryn Meisle) -- the beautiful, seen-it-all daughter of a church higher-up -- to devote himself wholly to the calling. What may at first be charitably called youthful enthusiasm becomes downright dangerous as he starts making unwanted housecalls, and we finally leave him convinced he has the power to cure AIDS and babbling about the virgin birth.
While "Racing Demon" takes a while to get off the ground, Hare creates a keenly observed world whose veneer of complacency is shattered by a series of forces that seem inevitable and ultimately irrevocable. No one wins; the bond is crack'd, to use Shakespeare's phrase, and nothing is offered to replace it.
Richard Eyre -- who also directed the production at the Doolittle Theatre last year -- has assembled a first-class cast for this modern morality tale, with Sommer, Martin and Cumpsty at the center, hurtling toward that bull's-eye with dead-on accuracy. But they're surrounded by fine actors putting flesh on sketchier roles, notably Paul Giamatti and Brian Murray, as Lionel's cohorts, and Meisle as the g.f., a role only slightly less underwritten than Chalfant's, as Lionel's dissolving wife, and Stella Marr's, as an abused parishioner.
Bob Crowley, last represented in this theater with "Carousel," sets the action on a simple cruciform set, relying heavily on Wendall K. Harrington's projections to set the scenes. As vividly as these dialogues were created, there never was much sense that this was all taking place in the south of London. It might have been anywhere.
But in truth, the questions raised here reverberate everywhere through a society in which spirituality is under constant assault by everything from "ethnic cleansing" to tabloid TV. The characters in "Racing Demon" are constantly turning to God for answers. But Hare's God is no comfort, keeping everything exceptionally close to the vest.