'Reasons' finds mystery outside the confessional

November 16, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

By sheer coincidence, Mart Crowley's "For Reasons That Remain Unclear" -- a play about a Catholic priest and a younger man who share a disturbing past -- opened at Olney Theatre on the same day Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was accused of sexual abuse. The opening also came a day after a New Mexico treatment center for wayward priests made a multimillion-dollar settlement with 25 people who claim they were abused by a former priest who was treated there.

So, though it may seem unfair to reveal part of the mystery of a play intended, at least in part, as a psychological thriller, recent headlines make it inevitable. When Crowley's overtly homosexual play, "The Boys in the Band," opened 25 years ago, the playwright was credited with breaking theatrical ground. In his latest and most laudable effort since then, Crowley may not be ahead of his time, but he is undeniably in sync with it.

Furthermore, the mystery element -- hinted at with an excess of leading lines and innuendoes -- isn't the most compelling aspect of "Reasons," which is receiving its world premiere under the direction of John Going. Instead, the characters, stunningly portrayed by Ken Ruta and Philip Anglim, are what pull you into the drama and make you care about the outcome.

The action takes place in the Rome hotel room of a Hollywood screenwriter named Patrick (Anglim), who has spent the day with an American priest (Ruta) he encountered by chance. By making Patrick a writer, Crowley gives the play a neatly self-reflexive quality. For years, Patrick tells the priest, he's been trying to write a play, but he's blocked. That play, we realize, is what we are watching on stage.

This is one of the more understated and successful aspects of a play and production that err on the side of overstatement, whether in terms ofthe script telling too much, or the light that floods into the hotel room at the conclusion, or even the costumes. (Granted, the priest probably has to wear black, but is it necessary to clothe Anglim in all white?)

What's intriguing, however -- and what saves the play from being merely a dramatized trip to the confessional -- is that the souls of these men are not so simplistically defined.

Despite his choirboy appearance, Anglim's Patrick is not angelic. His wit, which the priest so admires, barely camouflages a cynical spirit. Behind the priest's back, Anglim's makes no effort to disguise his contempt.

But if the screenwriter is intended to strike the audience as shady, the priest initially seems the opposite. The power of Ruta's portrayal doesn't derive from watching his warmth and apparent openness turn into sniveling shame; that's the easy stuff of melodrama. Instead, what's remarkable is that, in the end, he doesn't come across as despicable or entirely pitiful -- just extremely flawed and weak.

The audience sees the priest in this light because Patrick ultimately does. Indeed, even though this intermissionless play needs tightening -- particularly after the moment of revelation -- it is the characters' humanity, and possibly spirituality, that grant "Reasons" depth extending beyond today's headlines and tomorrow's movies of the week.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "For Reasons That Remain Unclear"

Where: Olney Theatre, 2001 Route 108, Olney

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; through Nov. 28

Tickets: $20-$25

$ Call: (301) 924-3400

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