Corrections or additions?

This review by Jack Florek was prepared for the September 20, 2000

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Mass Appeal’

Bill C. Davis wrote his play "Mass Appeal"

in 1980 and claims he based his characters on priests and seminarians

whom he had come across in his 16 years of Catholic schooling during

the 1960s and ’70s. In those turbulent times, a number of

"hot-button"

issues divided the church faithful, such as the question of women

in the priesthood, celibacy, and homosexuality among the clergy. These

issues are still with us, but in the intervening years the hot-button

has cooled considerably. And in playwright Davis’ hands, the button

is positively tepid.

Off-Broadstreet Theater in Hopewell first staged "Mass

Appeal"

in 1986, and is opening its new season with a revival production.

Perennially popular with community theaters, the show has only two

cast members, so it’s cheap to produce. The subject matter is mildly

controversial, it has one simple set, and the most technically

advanced

piece of equipment needed is an on-off switch.

That’s because this play is not about the issues dividing the church,

but rather it is the tried and true story of an idealistic young

person

fighting the unwinnable fight against good ol’ boy institutional

complacency.

It seems issues are raised here merely for effect, offered up, and

then dropped like hot wax.

Mark Dolson (Danny Siegel) is an idealistic young seminarian studying

to become a priest. He clashes with his mentor, Father Tim Farley

(Doug Kline), the church’s long-time parish priest, who believes the

secret to survival is always to be careful not to ruffle the feathers

of people in positions of authority. Dolson, being a young hot-head,

likes nothing better than ruffling feathers.

The first time we see him, in the middle of mass, Dolson vehemently

challenges what he sees as the archaic roles of women in the church,

eloquently explaining the historical fact that women were most loyal

to Jesus as they bravely administered to him at the cross while the

male apostles all hid for fear of persecution. This leaves Father

Farley limply standing at his pulpit, red faced and speechless before

his flock. Later, while giving his own very first sermon from the

pulpit, Dolson looses his cool and blurts out that the church

congregation

is nothing but a bunch of "complacent old blue-hairs."

Despite all this, Father Farley has taken a liking to

the boy, and tries to smooth things over for him with the congregation

and church authorities. He patiently tries to explain the advantages

of political correctness to the young seminarian, how to get by, how

to say the right things to the right people. However, nothing works.

When Dolson makes an enthusiastic defense to the Monsignor on behalf

of two fellow seminarians accused of homosexuality, he raises the

Monsignor’s suspicions. Despite Farley’s warnings, Dolson ultimately

admits to the Monsignor that he also has enjoyed sexual relations

with men (and women) in the past, but promises that he will cease

and desist after he takes his vow of celibacy. This is not good enough

for the Monsignor, and Dolson is given the boot.

As the young seminarian, Danny Siegel is exceedingly tense and stiff,

as if he needed to use every muscle he had just to remain standing.

Although this works somewhat in his favor because the character he

plays suffers from a similar anxiety, it quickly becomes clear that

this is the actor’s problem, not the character’s. Siegel simply never

relaxes, and delivers each line as if it were the beginning of a

monologue.

Opening weekend jitters may have contributed to this condition, and

to his credit, Siegel did know his lines, something that occasionally

gave Doug Kline, as Father Tim, difficulty.

For the most part, Kline plays the older priest in a likable fashion,

never embittered, just tired, world-weary, and compromised. He infuses

his part with moderation and a strong sense of the moment at hand.

One big problem is the over-the-top drunk scene between Father Farley

and Dolson. Kline plays it as if he were the result of mixed-breeding

experiment between Otis, the Mayberry town-drunk, and the slurring,

sloshing ’70s comedian Foster Brooks. In these times of M.A.D.D.,

such excesses are simply not funny. A more sensitive, understated

portrayal would be more fitting.

Granted this was most likely a directorial decision. And for the most

part, Robert Thick is workmanlike and unobtrusive in his direction,

possessing a nice knack for keeping things moving. People tend to

walk casually around desks, fiddling with whiskey bottles as they

chat, or shuffle in the corner pretending their attention has suddenly

been drawn to a spot on the carpet. All this in unobtrusive and

comfortable,

giving the performance the comfy-cozy glow of real life. And because

Thick makes safe and predictable directorial choices, he rarely makes

embarrassing mistakes.

He does have a problem with the lag time between scenes. It is too

long, and the continual playing of church hymns piped through the

speaker system doesn’t help. The night I saw the show, it was

literally

possible to say 10 Hail Mary’s during a single scene change. I would

recommend employing some sort of backstage crew to help speed things

along. (Or if there already is a crew in place, they’re not doing

their job.)

The lighting and set design by Thick are suitable, but not flashy.

Ann Raymond’s costume designs are equally functional. Making actors

look like priests is sometimes a difficult task, but she succeeded.

"Mass Appeal" is being billed as a comedy, but despite a few

humorous moments, it is hardly that. It is, in fact, a not

particularly

thought-provoking drama about how those with institutional power fight

change and vehemently remove anyone, young or old, who threatens them.

That the play uses the Catholic Church as a backdrop is barely an

issue. In fact, with a few line changes the play could be set in any

church, bank, school, or a hundred other different places.

Transporting

the play’s issues to an institution central to your life may make

for a pleasant diversion, but don’t expect any hot revelations.

— Jack Florek

Mass Appeal, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South

Greenwood

Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. Ticket includes dessert and beverage,

$20.50 & $22. Performances continue to October 14.


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