‘Doubt: A Parable," by American playwright John Patrick Shanley and "The Pillowman," by Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh were close competitors for the Best Play Tony Award. "Doubt," which won the top award, as well as awards for Cherry Jones (Best Actress), Doug Hughes (Best Director), and Adriane Lenox (Best Supporting Actress) moved auspiciously to Broadway direct from it sold-out run at the Manhattan Theater Club. No less worthy in its own right, "The Pillowman," the winner for Best Lighting and Best Set Design, came from England after its acclaimed production at the National Theater but with an American cast. These two excellent plays are welcome additions to the season.

Doubt: A Parable

To those who already know John Patrick Shanley as a fine and prolific playwright, it comes as no revelation that he has topped himself with "Doubt," a play that is as stunning in its composition as it is exceptional in its power to involve. Although the play is set in a Bronx Irish-Italian Catholic school in 1964, it invokes a contemporary and topical issue. The quandary at the heart of the play, rigorously directed by Doug Hughes, is whether Sister Aloysius (Cherry Jones), a firm believer in the inflexible directives and moral certainties that guide her in her faith and in her calling as a teacher, can get the goods on a well-liked young priest Father Flynn (Brian F. O’Byrne), whom she suspects of having an unnatural affection for the school’s sole black youth.

In order to validate her suspicions, she persuades the disbelieving Sister James (Heather Goldenhersh) to keep an eye on Father Flynn. The question remains whether the kindly and gentle Sister James, whose generosity of spirit and love of teaching appears to be in constant conflict with the sterner absolutes that govern her superior, is able to ally herself with Sister Aloysius. Sister Aloysius is unswerving in her resolute determination to out and oust the popular Father Flynn. The wonder of Shanley’s script is that it gives the astonishingly gifted Jones an opportunity, as Sister Aloysius, to engage us as much with her wry and starchy sense of humor as with her severity and tough single-mindedness.

The play is also strengthened by the remarkable performance of O’Byrne as Father Flynn, a fighter who not only steadfastly denies the charges against him, but who also courageously embeds philosophical moral tales in his Sunday sermons in the face of Sister Aloysius’ relentless pursuit. Another of the play’s more arresting elements is how important it is for Sister Aloysius to use all the cunning she can muster when she confronts Flynn, knowing she is in a world controlled by men. Goldenhersh offers a heartbreaking portrayal of Sister James, who is severely conflicted by her superior’s unshakable position and the lack of substantiating evidence.

One of the play’s most compelling scenes involves a visit by the boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller (beautifully acted by Adriane Lenox), in which she achingly reveals some family truths that unwittingly serve to empower Sister Aloysius. The play’s ultimate irony lies in the playwright’s decision not to impose innocence or guilt but rather to show how easily we become slaves of self-righteousness and how mercifully we are made receptive to doubt, perhaps one of the most spiritual of all human considerations. ****

Doubt: A Parable, Walter Kerr Theater, 219 W. 48th Street. 212-239-6200.

The Pillowman

Martin McDonagh, the author of the acclaimed award-winning "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" and other plays mainly set in his familiar Irish terrain, has a keen and crafty way of spinning unsettling yarns. He has come up with perhaps his most unsettling one yet, and one that is definitely not for the squeamish, but most assuredly for all those who appreciate a good spine-chilling drama. "The Pillowman" is a cunningly devised, if gruesome, slice of dramatic fiction that stands quite apart from McDonagh’s other plays, save for the darkness of its mood and its depiction of horrible parents.

"The Pillowman" is set in a fictional, vaguely European totalitarian state that many will find similar to the cold abstracted landscapes that host the plays of Brecht, Kafka, and even Ionescu. In contrast to those more politically-propelled playwrights, McDonagh is content with simply capitalizing on his gift for turning a macabre situation into a mystery with enough psychoanalytical twists and turns to give Freud and Jung apoplexy.

The play focuses on Katurian K. Katurian (Billy Crudup), a prolific writer of gruesome short stories (think Edgar Allan Poe by way of Edward Gorey), who suddenly finds himself as the prime suspect for the murder of a number of local children. The police have noticed that Katurian’s plots appear to mirror in gruesome detail the real life murders occurring in the same city where he lives reclusively with Michal (Michael Stuhlbarg), his older, mentally-challenged brother. Both brothers are brought in for questioning but Katurian, who believes, at first, that he is being targeted by the repressive government for the political subtext in his writing, appears shocked by the accusation. He is even more distressed to hear his brother screaming in pain in an adjoining room.

They are being questioned by a pair of sadistic investigators, the sinisterly droll Tupolski (Jeff Goldblum) and the compulsively brutal Ariel (Zeljko Ivanek), who take delight in trading off on their contrasting styles of interrogation, which embrace both psychological and physical torture. Under John Crowley’s intensely focused direction, the play processes Katurian’s gift for storytelling, seen in the light of his terrible childhood and his memory of sadistic parents physically abusing his brother. Even as Katurian’s stories reveal the origins of his imagination, some of which are grimly yet also sardonically dramatized within a high opening in Scott Pask’s creepy cell setting, we are also intrigued by the aberrant, almost absurdist, motivations that drive both Tupolski and Ariel.

Crudup is mesmerizing as the writer whose reality may have morphed into his fiction. No less compelling is Stuhlbarg, as the pathetically dependant brother. Standout performances by Goldblum and Ivanek and the supporting players help make this one of the more unusual and extraordinary plays that Broadway has offered in a long time. ***

The Pillowman, Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street. 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com.

Broadway Listings

The key: **** Don’t miss; *** You won’t feel cheated; ** Maybe you should have stayed home; * Don’t blame us.

A Streetcar Named Desire, Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, 254 West 54.

After the Night and the Music, Biltmore Theater, 261 West 47.

All Shook Up, Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway.

Avenue Q, **** Golden Theater, 252 West 45.

Beauty and the Beast, *** Lunt-Fontanne, Broadway & 46.

Chicago, *** Ambassador Theater, 219 West 49.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Hilton Theater, 213 West 42.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Imperial Theater, 249 West 45.***

Doubt, **** Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48.

Fiddler on the Roof, ** Minskoff Theater, 200 West 45.

Glengarry Glen Ross, Royale Theatre, 242 West 45.

Hairspray, *** Neil Simon Theater, 250 West 52.

Julius Caesar, Belasco Theater, 111 West 44.

La Cage Aux Folles, **** Marquis Theater, Broadway and West 46.

Lennon, Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44.

Movin’ Out, *** Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 West 46.

On Golden Pond, Cort Theatre, 138 West 48.

The Pillowman, HHHBooth Theater, 222 West 45th Street.

Rent, **** Nederlander Theater, 208 West 41.

Spamalot, Shubert Theater, 225 West 44.***

Sweet Charity, Al Hirschfeld Theater, 302 West 45.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Circle in the Square, 50th between Broadway and 8th.

The Constant Wife, American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42.

The Glass Menagerie, Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47.

The Light in the Piazza, Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65.

The Lion King, **** New Amsterdam Theater, Broadway and 42.

The Phantom of the Opera, *** Majestic Theater, 247 West 44.

The Pillowman, Booth Theater, 222 West 45.

The Producers, *** St. James Theater, 246 West 44.

Wicked *** Gershwin Theater, 222 West 51.

Ticket Numbers

Tele-Charge 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200; Ticket Central, 212-279-4200; and Ticketmaster, 212-307-4100.

Off-Broadway

A Picasso, New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th.

Blue Man Group, *** Astor Place, 434 Lafayette, 212-254-4370.

Cookin’, ** Minetta Lane, 18 Minetta Lane, 212-420-8000.

Dessa Rose, Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65. Closes May 29.

Drumstruck, Dodger Stages, 340 West 50.

Fascinating Aida, Theater Row, 410 West 42.

Flight, Lucille Lortel Theater, 410 West 42.

Forbidden Broadway Special Victims Unit, **** Douglas Fairbanks Theater, 432 West 42.

Howie the Rookie, Irish Arts Center, 553 West 51.

Hurlyburly, 37 Arts, 450 West 37.

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, ** Westside Theater, 407 West 43.

Jewtopia, * Westside Theater, 407 West 43rd.

Memory House, Playwrights Horizon, 416 West 42. Closes May 29.

Menopause, the Musical, Playhouse 91, 316 East 91, 212-831-2000.

Orson’s Shadow, Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow Street at 7.

Picon Pie, *** Lamb’s Theater, 130 West 44.

Privilege, Second Stage Theater, 307 West 43.

Shockheaded Peter, Little Shubert Theater, 422 West 42.

Slava’s Snowshow, ** Union Square Theater, 100 East 17.

Stomp, *** Orpheum Theater, Second Avenue at 8.

Terrorism, 410 West 42.

The Cherry Orchard, Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20.

The Musical of Musicals, *** Dodger Stages, 350 West 50.

The Paris Letter, Laura Pels Theater, 111 West 46.

Thom Pain, DR2 Theater, 103 East 15.

Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding ** St. Luke’s Church, 308 West 46.

Trolls, Actors Playhouse, 100 7th Avenue South.

Woman Before a Glass, Promenade Theater, Broadway and 76.

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