Under Doug Hughes' spirited, richly detailed direction, a ferocious gang of four—Cherry Jones, Brian F. O'Byrne, Heather Goldenhersh and Adriane Lenox—quickly erased that lingering little question mark and went after the material like a house a-fire. It played.
The drama opened Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club last November to a lavish critical reception and sellout business, topped the majority of ten best lists at year's end and is rumored for a Pulitzer Prize this month and a Tony in June. What's to doubt?
Shanley subtitled his drama, biblically, "A Parable." Set in something he knows a thing or two about—a Catholic high school in the Bronx of 1963—he stirs up a cerebral hornets' nest when a steel-willed nun (Jones) starts to suspect a priest, the school's basketball coach (O'Byrne), of an unhealthy interest in one of his students and obsessively builds a case to that effect with the hesitant help of a younger, more malleable nun (Goldenhersh). Think Javert in-heat. The student is never seen, but his mother (Lenox) is called to the office for a single-scene confrontation that comes off as surprising as it is dynamic.
In the Playbill, the author dedicates the piece "to the many orders of Catholic nuns who devoted their lives to serving others in hospitals, schools and retirement homes. Though they have been much maligned and ridiculed, who among us has been so generous?"
But, at the after-party held a block away at The Supper Club, Shanley said the relatively small, but crucial, role of the mother—an innocent bystander dragged screaming in a completely manufactured mess not at all of her own making—"was the reason that pushed me over the line. I was very ambivalent about writing this play because I thought it was a little on-the-nose, but, when I thought of that scene, then I knew I really had a play." And it was the play that, after 24 years of writing, finally got him to Broadway. "It feels like Off-Broadway but bigger," he said, quickly adding, "It's a little overstimulating."
He and Hughes joined the aforementioned gang of four for a final curtain call from the stage of the Kerr, but "I didn't even see the audience. I was just too busy trying to figure out the stage. When I won the Oscar [for Moonstruck, a movie he has musicalized with Henry Krieger and Susan Birkenhead], I was standing on a stage with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in front of a gigantic audience in that auditorium. It's disorienting."
This was also the first time Hughes looked out at an audience of first-nighters from the special perspective of a Broadway stage. It happened to be the last stage his parents, Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg, shared [in 2000's Waiting in the Wings].
Stenborg, who was Tony-nominated for that play, was glowing with maternal pride at The Supper Club. "It's thrilling," she beamed. "Barney couldn't be here tonight. He has been ill and in the hospital, but he's home now and doing much better. I called him right after the curtain came down to say how exciting it was. I cried through the whole phone call."
Also in the Hughes corner was Mark O'Donnell, the Tony-winning co author of Hairspray. "Doug and I have known each other since we were 19 or 20. He's directed some of my plays [That's All, Folks!, Tables for Friends, The Nice and the Nasty]."
O'Donnell just returned from the La Jolla Playhouse where its artistic director, Des McAnuff, commissioned and staged his Private Fittings, an adaptation of an 1885 French farce, Tailor for Ladies. "It's very much the old `Quick! My husband! Slam!' sort of thing." Will it have a future life? "I don't know, but Variety said it 'should be a staple of repertory theatre for years to come.' Of course, one always dreams of New York."
One of the most in-demand directors of the moment, Hughes also flew in from out of town—specifically, from the Atlanta launching of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter the night before. Carole Shorenstein Hays, who produced Doubt with Roger Berlind, Scott Rubin and MTC, was his opening-night guest. "She very sweetly came down for it and then very graciously allowed me to hop a ride back with her on her plane. We got great notices down there, and I'm very happy with it." Next stop? "Well, a number of people from very reputable establishments are getting on planes to see it, so we'll see . . ."
Not one to wait and see, Hughes starts rehearsing Ron Rifkin, John Glover, Lee Pace and Daniel Eric Gold April 12 for the Roundabout launching of The Paris Letter, Jon Robin Baitz's new play, which came in for a lot of praise when it bowed in Los Angeles.
True to its title, Doubt leaves the audience dangling inconclusively, and Hughes likes it like that. "It's entirely in the eyes of the beholder. Somebody told me, 'I saw it a month ago, two months ago, and I felt utterly convinced that he was the guilty party. I saw it again tonight'—this is a direct quote from the same person—'and I'm certain he's being done a terrible injustice.' Brian goes out there every night and plays it the same way. He and John and I know the truth, and we will never tell anybody. Cherry Jones certainly doesn't know. None of the women have ever been told what went on between Father Flynn and Donald Muller. It has never been discussed beyond John, Brian and me."
O'Byrne regulates audiences accordingly. "It's never the same," he said. "I'm living a new play each night. I don't think the end result ever changes, but, at different points in the play, you can sense the audience going stronger in one direction or the other so I get a chance to work with that and pull them back one way or push them away. Cherry and I have these two characters who are movable feasts. We know the end of the play. The ones who don't are the audience. As two actors, we get to manipulate them. The fight that goes on is as much between Cherry Jones and me over the audience as what we argue about."
Head-to-head confrontations are a specialty with O'Byrne, who last year collected a Tony for Frozen. "I was honored last year to work with Miss Swoosie Kurtz on one of the most amazing scenes I have ever had to do. And, now, to work with Cherry—I'm a lucky guy!"
(Attention, Guinness Book of Records: If Doubt wins the Tony, which it probably will, O'Bryne will be the first actor to appear in the Tony-winning Best Play of the Year as well as the Oscar-winning Best Picture of the Year. What's more, he did it without much of a change of costume—He was Clint Eastwood's Irish priest in Million Dollar Baby.)
Considering the demons that seemed to be flying out of Sister Aloysius' relentlessly one-track mind, Jones manages to draw an inordinate amount of laughs out of the role. "I didn't find 'em, honey," she demurred. "John Patrick Shanley laid 'em out on a silver platter. I haven't got a comic-timing bone in my body. You just can't go wrong with those lines."
It was, she allowed, a heart-swelling evening—not unlike the one she experienced a decade ago when she delivered a Tony-winning performance of Catherine Sloper, The Heiress, in a revival of Augustus and Ruth Goetz's adaptation of Henry James' Washington Square. Ironically, the post premiere party was at the same place. "I remember ten years ago I walked into this Supper Club as Catherine Sloper—it was exactly ten years ago this month—and I got as far as that column and the room stood up.
"The pressure was a little different tonight than it was with The Heiress. Gerry Gutierrez [the director] made me so much the belle of the ball in that one, and this is such a shared experience. Tonight is the kind of camaraderie experience most actors live for. We feel like such a company, the four of us, so we just knew what we were getting out tonight as a company was good and strong and an assured opening night. It so rarely feels that way. Opening nights are usually so scattershot, because of the nerves, but this one was great."
Among the first-nighters were David Hasselhoff with horn-rimmed glasses (but not for the TV cameras), Harvey Keitel with wife Daphna (but not for interviewing), Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Marian Seldes, Patricia Connolly, Patricia Neal, Adam Duritz, Adam Arkin, Andrew McCarthy, Les Moonves and Julie Chen, Ivana Trump, Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry, Dominic Chianese, John Guare, Hope Davis and J. J. Walker, Phyllis Newman, Jimmy Smits and Calvin Klein. On the way into the Kerr, producer Elizabeth McCann was complimented on the Times rave Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? got. "Thanks," she shrugged, "it didn't cost too much."
Cynthia Nixon, very high-profile with "Sex and the City" in syndication, drew her share of fotog flashes. She recently inherited Jane Alexander's Emmy-nominated TV role of Eleanor Roosevelt for the HBO film, "Warm Springs," opposite Kenneth Branagh's FDR—with Alexander relegated to the mother-in-law role, Sarah Delano Roosevelt. "It's good—I've seen it—it's good," she trilled, tossing false modesty to the four winds. The TV movie covers much of the same Sunrise at Campobello turf, running from 1918 to 1934.
And "I'm about to start an independent film here in New York with Ethan Hawke called One Last Thing. I play the mother of a 16-year-old boy who is dying of cancer."
Play-wise, Nixon will be back on boards at Roundabout for the next two seasons. In the fall, she will star in Lanford Wilson's two-character Pulitzer Prize-winner of 1980, Talley's Folly. When she was announced initially for this project a few years ago and it was postponed because of her pregnancy, her vis-a-vis was to be the excellent and much-underrated Mark Nelson. Now, she said, the co-star issue is still in negotiations.
The next year, she will star in a New Group revival of Jay Presson Allen's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, directed by Scott Elliott. She'll played the tyrannical schoolteacher of the title—a role that won Zoe Caldwell the Tony, Vanessa Redgrave the Olivier and Maggie Smith the Oscar and could work comparable wonders for the overdue Nixon.
At the after-party, Edward Hibbert was singing the praises of Doubt in his clipped-Brit fashion. "It redefined, and reinforced, my love for American theatre," he declared. "The play is perfect. Great performances. It'll have legs. I see it in London, everywhere really. It is that wonderful and rare thing: It is a play that is important and commercial."
He has a few commercial irons in the fire himself. "In early July, I'm doing the final workshop of Curtains, the Kander-and-Ebb musical which is going forward now with a new book by Rupert Holmes, Peter Stone having sadly died. Debra Monk, Randy Graff and I are doing it, and then, I believe, we're doing it out in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson next year. It's a murder mystery, set backstage at a Broadway show, and I play the director. It's, basically, Gosford Park-Meets-Light Up the Sky, a wonderful mix."
Also in July, he's joining actor-director Daniel Gerroll for a Sag Harbor revival of S. N. Behrman's 1930s antic, No Time for Comedy, which Gerroll will direct and perform. Then, "Mattress is airing in November" (translation: the Showtime movie Kathleen Marshall directed and which elevates the original Broadway lead, Carol Burnett, to queen).
Lynne Meadow, MTC's own queen, wore a special smile of contentment all evening—as well she should. Something she first encountered on the printed page just leapt from page to stage because of her doing. "Our director of artistic development went to a reading, heard the play and said, 'I think you should read it.' I did, that night. I called Shanley the next morning. I said, 'I want to do the play.'" There was no doubt about it.