Merry Wives of Windsor at The Stratford Festival – A Review

Merry Wives owes its existence, according to tradition, to Queen Elizabeth the First’s desire to see more of Falstaff, who had become an audience favorite in Shakespeare’s histories. Thank you, Queen Bess!

The play shows us Sir John Falstaff well past his military prime and plotting to ease his financial problems by making lascivious advances to two of the town’s respectable and well-off married women, Meg Page and Alice Ford. They quickly cotton to his absurd plan and conspire together to teach the old rascal a lesson. Complicating matters is Mr. Ford who becomes volcanically jealous when he catches wind of Falstaff’s wooing. In a subplot Mr. and Mrs. Page each want to marry their daughter, Anne, to different, but equally unsuitable men; Anne of course has ideas of her own.

Shakespeare deploys comic devices — narrow escapes, people hiding in closets and laundry baskets, ludicrous disguises — that are used in popular farces to this day. The plot culminates in a midnight meeting on Halloween in the deep woods where Falstaff thinks a threesome might be in the offing only to be terrified by the entire town disguised as goblins, fairies, and all manner of beasties. In the confusion, Anne Page’s unsuitable suitors are bamboozled and true love triumphs. Falstaff is humbled and order is restored.

Cimolino has transposed the play to the 1950s in a town that looks a lot like Stratford, right down to the Canada geese squawking as they fly overhead. This kind of reimagining has its pitfalls, but in this case it works remarkably well. He has also encouraged his cast to take the comic shtick to infinity and beyond. Cimolino has a gift for this sort of over-the-top comedy as he demonstrated in 2017’s enema-filled production of Moliere’s The Hypochondriac (a.k.a. The Imaginary Invalid). For the most part it succeeds in Merry Wives, but not always.

Geraint Wyn Davies is, not to put too fine a point on it, brilliant as Falstaff. He played the role in the Festival’s last mounting of the play in 2011 and he is even better this time around. Falstaff is a bundle, a very large bundle, of contradictions, self-delusional one moment, all too aware of his frailties the next. Wyn Davies conveys all this beautifully and with remarkable psychological realism given the absurdity of the situations. Designer Julie Fox has stuffed his costume with a massive gut and seldom has fat shaming been funnier. Cimolino has devised numerous ways to illustrate the challenges posed by Falstaff’s bulk, none funnier than when he winds up on his back in Mrs. Ford’s bed and cannot right himself.

Graham Abbey who was such a forceful presence as Aufidius in last year’s Coriolanus is here a nimble and manic farceur. The scene in which he leaps triumphantly on top of a massive clothes hamper believing he has captured Falstaff inside is one of the play’s highlights.

Wyn Davies and Abbey are reason enough to pay the price of admission, but there is other good acting on display. Brigit Wilson and Sophia Walker as Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford, respectively, are rock solid as the merry wives of the title. They must be the firm center around which all the madness swirls and they fill that role perfectly. Lucy Peacock, who played Mistress Ford in the 2011 production, does a deft turn as the go-between who sets much of the plot in motion.

There is solid work in supporting roles too. In the romantic subplot, Jamie Mac, one of Stratford’s most reliable comic actors, is delightfully goofy as the idiotic Slender, while Michael Spencer-Davis wrings every last laugh out of Slender’s aged relative, Justice Shallow. Mike Shara is charming in the small role of Fenton, who affects a beatnik-style beret to cover a massive mole on his forehead. Less successful is Gordon S. Miller’s shouted performance as the French Dr. Caius, Mrs. Page’s choice for her daughter’s hand. His body language is hysterically funny, which is just as well because his accent is impenetrable.

Julie Fox, who designed both sets and costumes, has done an admirable job of bringing 50s Stratford to life. Her perfectly detailed costumes run the gamut from proper middle class matrons and their straight-laced husbands, to butch bar owners (Shakespeare’s Host of the Garter is here a woman), to leather-clad greasers and what I assume is a Canadian version of a Teddy Boy (Randy Hughson as Pistol). The main set evokes a solidly middle-class Tudor-style home much like one you might pass while walking to the theatre. Jason Hand supplied the lighting. Berthold Carriere has written 50s-style songs with lyrics by the actress Marion Adler to serve as incidental music. If you didn’t read the program you might imagine the sound designer (Thomas Ryder Payne) had ransacked an old record collection.

The Stratford Festival distinguishes itself with a large company of actors who can speak Shakespeare’s sometimes tricky iambic pentameter with admirable clarity. Merry Wives of Windsor is almost entirely prose, which makes it all the more surprising that some performers, fortunately in lesser roles, fail to convey the meaning of most of their lines. This is the sort of thing that makes some people feel Shakespeare is “hard to understand” and may in turn explain why huge swaths of seats were empty at the performance I saw.

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Henry VIII at The Stratford Festival – A Review

Henry VIII is one of Shakespeare’s last plays and one of the oddest. It would seem that the play was designed to compete with the growing popularity among the Globe’s monied clientele of court masques, elaborately staged pageants that featured rich costumes and ingenious special effects. Ironically, the attempt to mimic the court proved catastrophic. One special effect featured a cannon fired from atop the Globe. An ember fell on the thatched roof and the theatre burned to the ground.

Ideally, a new production would reflect that history (minus destroying the theatre, of course), with a large cast, magnificent costumes, elaborate effects, and a splendiferous set in the 1,200-seat Festival Theatre. Alas, director Martha Henry has to make do with the intimate confines of the Stratford Festival’s 250-seat Studio Theatre and a cast of just twenty-two, with considerable doubling. Despite these constraints, she does a remarkable job of creating a certain amount of spectacle. One can sympathize with the decision; Henry VIII is a little known Shakespeare that would not have the box office draw of a Shrew or a Romeo and Juliet. Even so, one can wish.

One thing that sets this play apart from others in the canon is that the title character is not really at the center of the action. True, he is a powerful and often frightening presence throughout the play, but he is often offstage. Shakespeare turns his attention largely to the effect dynastic politics, not to mention Henry’s whims and ambitions, have on those around him.

Shakespeare brings to the foreground three characters whose privileged places in society were brought to ruin during Henry’s reign. The Duke of Buckingham was executed; Cardinal Wolsey was stripped of his offices and properties, and died in disgrace; Henry’s once and perhaps still beloved wife, Catherine of Aragon, was divorced so that Henry could marry Anne Bullen (or Boleyn) and sent into humiliating, if comfortable, house arrest. Each of them has a beautiful soliloquy in which they appeal to the audience’s sympathies (Catherine is also accorded a heart-rending death scene) and each of them is amazingly affecting, even Wolsey who has been depicted as the lowest form of Machiavel.

The original title of the play was All Is True. (It was subsequently demoted to a subtitle.) One can only assume that the contemporary audience had firm, and perhaps uniformly negative, opinions of all of these characters. Was Shakespeare offering “alternative facts” and suggesting with his title that historical truth is ultimately unknowable?

Shakespeare does not neglect to give Henry his own arc in the play, although it takes a good actor and director to make it manifest. We see him first as a cheerful sovereign obviously deeply in love with his wife but shaky on the details of governance (Taxes? What taxes?). By play’s end he has become more Machiavellian than Wolsey himself. The penultimate scene in the play in which he makes the newly appointed Archbishop Cranmer his golden boy and forces the entire council of state, who had to a man opposed Cranmer’s ascension, tow the new party line is chilling indeed.

Ultimately, any psychological verisimilitude falls away with the birth of Elizabeth and an outburst of patriotic pride that beggars the imagination. Could Henry, for whom producing a male heir was all-important, really have been that thrilled with the arrival of the future Queen Bess? One thinks not.

As mentioned earlier, director Henry does a good job of dealing with her limited resources and creates a suggestion of the pomp the piece demands, aided in no small measure by designer Francesca Callow’s increasingly colorful if often anachronistic costumes. I doubt Anne Bullen (Alexandra Lainfiesta) ever danced in a dress with two waist-to-floor slits, but who’s complaining?

For the most part, Ms. Henry keeps a firm hand on the rudder as she marshals an exemplary cast, making sure that the many historical figures, only a few of whom a modern audience is likely to remember, remain distinct. An unfortunate misstep occurs in a scene in which Cardinal Wolsey throws a party. Instead of showing the Cardinal’s real sin — his betrayal of his office in favor of ill-gotten wealth and wretched excess – she depicts the Cardinal as a kinky voluptuary complete with red silk pajamas and purple boa.

As King Henry, Jonathan Goad does a good job of showing us a king driven to ever more equivocal ethical decisions by the pressures of a rigidly patriarchal power structure. But the true star performance of the piece comes from Irene Poole as Catherine. Her confrontation with Wolsey is as startlingly powerful as her death scene is poignant; along the way she depicts beautifully the ironies and injustices of her position as the daughter of a king reduced to mere pawn.

The estimable Rod Beattie seems miscast as Wolsey. Initially he conveys little of the stature or evil the part demands. His line readings are often flat and he reminded me in turn of one of his Wingfield personas, then of an elderly Mr. Bean, and then of Wallace Shawn. Even so, in his scene after the king discovers his perfidy, he was quietly devastating.

Other solid work comes from Tim Campbell as Buckingham, although at the performance I saw he skipped the curtain call, which struck me as a breach of protocol. Festival stalwarts Wayne Best, Brad Hodder, Stephen Russell, Scott Wentworth, and Rylan Wilkie all lend excellent support.

All in all, this was as good a rendition of this intriguing play as one could expect given the obvious restraints. I only wish Ms. Henry had been given the Festival Theatre stage and the budget required to give us a real appreciation of what Shakespeare had in mind.

Some final observations: There seems to be some consensus that this play was a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, although some preeminent scholars disagree. The program gives the Bard sole credit and I am not inclined to argue with that. The bit of pseudo-Elizabethan doggerel, written by a cast member, that closed the show didn’t help.

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The Merry Wives of Windsor at Stratford Shakespeare Festival

If you are seeing the revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival you might want to bookend that experience with The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare’s great revenge comedy.

Being given a smashing production at the Festival Theatre under the taut direction of Frank Galati (who also adapted the Festival’s staggering production of Grapes of Wrath), Merry Wives is one of the jewels of the 2011 season.

Galati has set the action in what looks to be the 1840s giving the proceedings a deliciously Dickensian flavor and, unlike many such time shifts in Shakespeare productions, this one works flawlessly, simply substituting Victoria for Elizabeth as “our radiant queen.” The Victorian costumes by Robert Perdziola are both sumptuous and witty and his set is simple and efficient.

Falstaff is played by long-time Festival star Geraint Wyn Davies and his performance is an unalloyed delight from start to finish. Even so, Tom Rooney almost steals the show with his splendid turn as the might-be cuckolded Ford. Laura Condlin and Lucy Peacock are spot on as the eponymous wives and Christopher Prentice and James Blendick are hilarious as the idiotic Master Slender and his long-suffering uncle, Justice Shallow. In a class by himself is Nigel Bennett as the French Dr. Caius.

The humor of Merry Wives is still astonishingly fresh after 400-odd years and could almost serve as the pilot for a new Britcom on PBS. It’s a great introduction to Shakespeare for younger audiences who will have no problem at all following the raucous action.

I wish the Herne’s Oak scene that culminates Falstaff’s public humiliation had been a bit eerier, a bit spookier, but this is a minor quibble in a production that stands as one of the Festival’s very best.

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The Homecoming at Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Harold Pinter is a playwright of such profound idiosyncrasy that he has his very own adjective – Pinteresque. And if ever there was a Pinter play that deserves that soubriquet it’s The Homecoming, which is being given a top drawer, if somewhat flawed, revival by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival at their downtown Avon Theatre.

Teddy is returning to the drab working class London home of his youth. Since his unexplained departure he has acquired a PhD, an American academic career, and a wife. His father Max and brothers Lenny and Joey seem less than enthralled to see him back. Only his uncle Sam has a kind word for him. What follows from this sparse set up is a profoundly unsettling sequence of events bristling with casual cruelty and sexual degradation.

Personally, I feel that rummaging through Pinter’s plays in search of the “key” to their meaning is a fool’s errand. I prefer to think of him as the theatrical equivalent of an abstract painter. But if they don’t have “meaning” his plays most certainly have tone and mood. His work has been described as “the comedy of menace” and that seems fair enough. There are laughs here certainly, but The Homecoming leaves you with a deep sense of unease in the pit of your stomach.

The key then is in the performance and the ideal Pinter actor brings to his role a certain stylization that allows us to see the character as at once perfectly believable and yet oddly surreal. For the most part, director Jennifer Tarver’s cast gets it right. Aaron Krohn, making a smashing Stratford debut, is nothing short of brilliant as Lenny, the creepy pimp of the family. He quite literally makes your skin crawl. As the dumb as a post would-be boxer Joey, Ian Lake is also spot on. (These two, by the way, appear almost anonymously as rock musicians in Twelfth Night.)

The charming Mike Shara makes a solid Teddy, the returning son, but Cara Ricketts as his wife could have been a bit more inscrutable and sphinx-like for my taste. As the pater familias Max, Brian Dennehy gives a nicely naturalistic performance that unfortunately lacks that additional edge of unreality that serves the others so well and that would have made this production really soar.

In most productions of The Homecoming, the “star’s” bow goes to Max, but here the director (I am assuming) gives it to Aaron Krohn’s Lenny and deservedly so. Let’s hope this American actor returns for more seasons at Stratford.

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Labadee, Haiti: Royal Caribbean’s Tropical Paradise

Royal Caribbean has created Labadee as a tropical paradise bearing its name.

On the north coast of Haiti lies a narrow spit of land that juts out to sea from the surrounding hills forming a nice little cove. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines has carefully walled it off from the rest of the country to create a “secluded tropical paradise” for the enjoyment of passengers who otherwise would probably never visit

Since 1986 Labadee has been the largest contributor of tourist dollars to Haiti.

Haiti at all. They call it Labadee.

The original place name is Labadie, but RCCL changed it to Labadee and made the tweaked name a “Service Mark” of the cruise line and, some nondescript ruins aside, everything in it is as artificial as the new name. The closest visitors get to the real Haiti is the Artisan’s Village, where an engaging group of locals sell handicrafts and trinkets to the thousands of punters who pour off the moored cruise ship.
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‘La Bete’ on Broadway, a Review

la bete on broadway

Voters for the Tony Awards have a major problem on their hands. Can they give Mark Rylance the Best Actor award again, a mere three years after Boeing, Boeing? Certainly they will be unable to avoid nominating him for his astounding comic performance in David Hirson’s masterful La Bête.

La Bête (The Beast or The Fool), first produced on Broadway in 1991 to little acclaim although it went on to win an Olivier Award in London, is something of a tour de force.

Written in rhyming couplets in the manner of Moliere, set in Moliere’s France, and dealing with the sort of cultural hypocrisies that were Moliere’s bread and butter, Hirson’s play seems uncannily of the moment nearly twenty years on, with much to tell us about the current debased state of our entertainment culture. (Are you reading this Snooki?) Perhaps that is the definition of great dramatic art.

Hirson’s theme is the clash between high and low art. Valere, a street performer of decidedly low brow fare, is being foisted upon the elite actor-playwright-artistic-director Elomire (an anagram of Moliere, by the way) by the Princess, who provides 100% of the funding for Elomire’s troupe of thespians.

Valere, the Princess has decreed, is the breath of fresh air needed to take Elomire’s art to the next level. Elomire wants none of it.

The epic battle between and amongst these points of view is the rapid fire traffic of this intermissionless farce of ideas and what a ride it is.

This production reverses the trajectory of the original – it started in London and comes to Broadway with an all-star international cast and a director with a string of recent blockbuster hits to his credit. It proves to be a winning combination.

Best of all is Shakespearean veteran Mark Rylance, former artistic director of London’s Globe Theater, as the spectacularly loathsome, crude, and coarse Valere. The twenty-minute monologue that comprises his entrance is the sort of thing theater legends are built on and Rylance rises to and well beyond the occasion. It is the very definition of “a tough act to follow.”

And yet David Hyde Pierce (“Frasier”) as Elomire and Stephen Ouimette (“Slings and Arrows”) as his right hand man Bejart manage to do just that. Theirs is the unenviable task to react to Rylance’s cascade of comic brilliance and they turn the exercise into something of a textbook illustration of the actor’s art.

The Princess’s entrance is marked by an explosion of gold glitter and Joanna Lumley (“Absolutely Fabulous”) lives up to the metaphor with a performance that makes the absolute corruption of absolute power absolutely palpable.

The director Matthew Warchus also helmed Boeing, Boeing, which I found hideously overwrought. But he brings just the right touch to La Bête, as he did for God of Carnage a few seasons back.

And kudos to the producers for lavishing money on what is, by any Broadway definition, a risky venture. Mark Thompson’s spectacular set and costumes add immeasurably to the fun of the experience.

La Bête, truth be told, is not an entirely successful piece. Valere is asked to present one of his plays and Hirson doesn’t quite manage to pull it off. But Elomire’s inability to cut his conscience to fit this year’s fashion has deep resonance today and Hirson, whose sympathies seem to lie on the high culture side of the great divide, wisely refuses to dismiss Valere out of hand, suggesting that highbrow culture is often its own worst enemy.

Anyone who loves the theater and relishes language for its own sake should rush to The Music Box Theater and catch this production. I loved Hirson’s last Broadway outing, Wrong Mountain, which touched on similar themes. It garnered dismissive reviews and closed quickly.

This production, thanks largely to the contributions of Rylance, Hyde Pierce, and Warchus, seems to have found favor with the critics. But the Broadway audience is fickle and, as Hirson himself pointed out in Wrong Mountain, not prone to revel in ideas when presented on the stage, not matter how brilliant the presentation.

Hurry.

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In Lhasa, Everbody Goes To Dunya

dunya restaurant, lhasa tibet
The terrace at Dunya

The restaurant scene in Lhasa’s old town, such as it is, has taken a decided step upwards with the arrival of Dunya, a sprightly new eatery with an international menu and an international staff to match.

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Waterpark Pioneer Tells All, A Book Review

Wave Maker

If the guy on the cover of “The Wave Maker,” Tim O’Brien’s as-told-to biography of the creator of Wet ‘n Wild and SeaWorld, looks like he’s been through the wringer, it’s because he has.

The Wave Maker” is the story of a man who believed in himself, who never thought of giving up, even when faced with health set backs that would have sidelined most of us. He had in his arsenal a tremendous sense of creativity, a strong work ethic, and an unshakeable belief that his ambitious projects would reach a successful conclusion.

George Millay, for that is the name of the battered survivor on the book’s cover, is a visionary, an innovative, restive, and determined risk-taker who created two major theme park genres.

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“Wit” Off-Broadway, A Review

This production has closed.

Margaret Edson’s Pultizer prize-winning study of an ice-cold intellectual ravaged by advanced ovarian cancer has moved from its funky origins in Chelsea’s warehouse district to the trendy environs of the Village’s Union Square. And with a new cast it is better than ever.

Actually, I was one of the few dissenting voices on the original production. I felt that the central character’s empty personal life was never dealt with dramatically and left a hollow space where the play’s heart should have been. On top of that, the key roles were played too much on one note for my taste, emphasizing the intellectual rigor of the piece but sacrificing the human connection that would make us care for the people on stage.

Now however, new players in some key roles are bringing more colors and more ambiguity to their characters making them much more human and the play itself truly moving.

It’s hard to recommend an unsparing, intermission-less examination of the inevitable decline and agonizing death of a cancer patient as a fun evening in the theater, but “Wit” brings with it some of the catharsis that got the Greeks writing plays in the first place. Dr. Vivian Bearing, an eminent Donne scholar, has been diagnosed with advanced Stage Four metastatic ovarian cancer. Narrating her own tale, she reminds us that there is no Stage Five. The ending is never in doubt and, to the production’s great credit, the journey is harrowing.

Edson’s conceit here is to contrast the intellectual rigor and struggle for life’s meaning in John Donne’s metaphysical poetry (he’s the Elizabethan-era “Death be not proud” guy for those who have misplaced their Cliff Notes) with the seemingly pointless existence of the hard-driving Dr. Bearing, who has a barely disguised contempt for her students. It’s hard not to notice that the medical establishment has scant human interest in Dr. Bearing either, except as a terrific opportunity to experiment with a brutal new regimen of treatment. As you sow…

Edson raises some interesting issues but raising them, alas, is not quite the same as achieving a dramatic resolution. In the end, Dr. Bearing seems unchanged spiritually, her suffering yielding no insight. Edson, a teacher herself, does better with the poetry explication (in the form of flashbacks to Bearing’s lectures), which is exceptionally well done.

What’s noteworthy in the new incarnation of the play is the humanity brought to Bearing by Judith Light, probably best known for her sitcom role in Who’s The Boss? She’s every bit the intellectual tyrant, wielding the kind of scathing irony that can lacerate. But as her disease progresses, we can see the fear and bewilderment that her predecessor in the role hid too well. This performance made me care for Bearing in ways I didn’t think possible. Now the scene late in the play when Bearing is comforted by her old mentor (played with ethereal simplicity by Sally Parrish) is truly heartbreaking.

Also adding welcome leavening is Grant Show as the young researcher (and one time student of Bearing’s). His Dr. Posner is still totally lacking in both bedside manner and human warmth, but he lets us see the total guilelessness of the young twit that let’s us forgive him. Continuing, as Susie, the none-too-bright nurse with the heart of gold, Paula Pizzi turns in another humanizing performance.

The Union Square Theatre is steps away from its namesake, where you’ll find a fun greenmarket on several days of the week. If you’re looking for a splurgy pre- or post-theater dining experience, I recommend Patria at 20th Street and Park Avenue South. It’s “nuevo-Latino” cuisine is a theatrical experience in its own right.

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“Doubt” On Broadway, A Review

This production has closed.

No doubt about it, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt is the best new play to hit Broadway in a good long while. In fact, it restored my faith in American drama.

Set in the Bronx of Shanley’s youth, it tells the story of the struggle between the crusty old nun who runs the parochial school with an iron hand and the charismatic young priest she believes has molested one of her young charges.

But before you think we have another anti-Catholic screed like Sister Mary Ignatius or a lurid exploitation piece playing on Catholic weirdness a la Agnes of God, think again. Tellingly, the play is subtitled A Parable and, like the tales told by Jesus to illustrate a point, it has resonances far beyond the immediate points of the plot.

Father Flynn (Brian O’Byrne) is straight out of an old Bing Crosby/Barry Fitzgerald movie, the kind of young, idealistic priest that everyone adores. He’s a terrific homilist, too. He gives two in the course of the play, delivered straight to the audience-as-congregation and I think if I could be guaranteed sermons like that I might become a regular churchgoer. He also seems to have a way with kids, as evidenced in another terrific vignette in which we become the members of the basketball team he coaches.

But Father Flynn’s way with kids might have a darker side. Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones), the principal, is convinced he’s up to no good with the young black kid who has recently transferred to the school and she enlists the help of Sister James (Heather Goldenhersh), the idealistic young nun who, in Sister Aloysius’ view, wants too much to be liked by her students, to help get the goods on him.

Thus the stage is set for an elaborate game of cat and mouse that Shanley sketches in with the deft touch of master portrait painter in a series of scenes that build doubt upon doubt in an attempt to forge certainty.

Hoping to gain an ally, Sister Aloysius calls in the boy’s mother (Adriane Lenox), who brings to the situation a street-wise savvy that takes the good Sister aback and adds yet another layer of complexity to the moral calculus the play forces us to undertake.

Shanley does a brilliant job of leading both his audience and his characters to the brink of certainty while leaving room for the profoundest of doubts.

The four performers are all superb, none more so that O’Byrne and Jones. Director Doug Hughes has encouraged his players to make what actors like to call “big choices” and then has carefully restrained them from stepping over the boundary of “too much.” The result is a series of colorful and idiosyncratic portrayals that will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.

With Doubt, Shanley makes the transistion from promising young playwright to established master. His next Broadway outing will be eagerly anticipated by a great many people, I’m sure. But don’t wait until then. See Doubt now.

UPDATE: Doubt won the Tony for Best Play of 2005 and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. All four performers were nominated for Tonies; Cherry Jones and Adriane Lenox won. Doug Hughes won the best directing Tony.

UPDATE: The cast now features Eileen Atkins as Sister Aloysius, Ron Eldard as Father Flynn, and Jena Malone as Sister James. Adriane lenox continues as Mrs. Muller.

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