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A CurtainUp Review

So here I am with my gay son and my unmarried pregnant daughter

Jane Powell is best remembered as the prima-bride in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, a movie musical also remembered for Michael Kidd's elegantly exuberant choreography. We now have her gracing the stage in this most welcome new off-Broadway comedy, with a screwball story line that pirouettes through minefields so adroitly, we have to wonder where and when its playwright, Bill C. Davis, acquired so much grace.

I have never been a huge fan of Davis's best known play (later a movie), Mass Appeal (my CurtainUp review of which is linked below). To me, it is heavy-handed and predictable in its treatment of the fault lines between the Catholic Church, on the one hand, and women and gays, on the other. Avow, which deals with variations on the same themes two decades later, is more sensitive and intelligent, and better informed. It's also still very funny, a result it achieves without trivializing passions or beliefs on either side of its many arguments.

The multi-faceted central crisis in Avow seems to hit on virtually every major issue confronting the Catholic Church at the moment, with the possible exception of human euthanasia. Tom (Scott Ferrara) and Brian (Christopher Sieber) are observant but "salad bar" Catholics: taking what "nourishes" them and leaving the rest on the table (or perhaps the altar). Because they like what he has to say, they have become active parishioners in the church of Father Raymond (Alan Campbell). So fond are they of him, in fact, they want to administer their wedding vows. The compassionate priest cannot oblige and urges celibacy.

Their marriage is part of a larger plan. Brian's sister, Irene (Sarah Knowlton), is unmarried and pregnant. To avoid an abortion, Brian and Tom want to adopt and raise her child. So Irene, a lapsed Catholic, goes to visit Father Raymond, as the couple's "ambassador". Although he cannot be persuaded, soon there is some evident chemistry between Irene and the lonely, isolated priest (who remains quite solid spiritually, even as he questions his own vows).

Irene is also Brian's ambassador to their mother, Rose (Jane Powell), who deals with her son's lifestyle by lighting candles and going to confession a lot. Irene's persuasion and the wise counsel of her much-admired confessor, Father Nash (Reathel Bean), leads Rose to a reconciliation with Brian. His time with Irene leads Father Raymond to Father Nash's confessional as well, and ultimately out of the Rectory (albeit not into her waiting arms).

Viewpoints are finely observed here, and while stereotypes are not ignored, they are also not indulged in. In this regard, Jack Hofsiss's unobtrusive but careful direction, and a fine job of casting, are to be much commended.

Tom and Brian are in love, but they are presented as very different people. Sieber's excellent portrayal of Brian is more emotional and open than Ferrara's Tom, but the latter's less flashy role does not keep him from finding its poignant nuances. As Brian becomes increasingly strident, Tom's contemplative nature erects a barrier. Alan Campbell, whose range runs from self-assured and centered to jittery and perplexed, is equally convincing. He is able to render the priest attractive (making Irene's immediate crush plausible), without allowing him to become sexual.

Irene is Sarah Knowlton at her very best: spunky, amusing, loving and very real. So is Jane Powell, who is ceaselessly not only the show's most radiant presence, but its comic lodestone as well. Anyone anticipating a nostalgic glimpse of a fading MGM star will have come to the wrong place; Powell is an estimable force, perhaps better than she has ever been and certainly as appealing. 

There are, to be sure, a few elements here that feel a bit too immaculate in their conception -- Tom's consideration of celibacy both arrives and departs too spontaneously, and the underpinnings of the priest's apparent interest in Irene seem somewhat underdeveloped. But we must remember that enough time is compressed to permit Irene to progress from "not showing" to childbirth, so some license must be allowed for what is not shown. 

David Jenkin's set tries a little too hard to be all things to all people. It also reads a little plain especially when compared to Julie Weiss's perfect contemporary upper middle class suburban costumes. Ken Billington does fine by the lighting, including a particularly nice effect for the play's several scenes in confessionals.

There will also be those, on both sides of the debate, who will fail to find the objectivity I admire here. The Catholic League would no doubt second guess the pragmatism exhibited by these two priests, and the liberal ranks of the Church would be equally vociferous in complaining about the failure to underscore the damage caused by Rome's mandates. But for the Gay Jews of the world, playwright Davis has done mighty fine.

CurtainUp's review of Bill C. Davis's Mass Appeal

by Bill C. Davis 
Directed by Jack Hofsiss 

Starring Christopher Sieber, Scott Ferrara, Alan Campbell, Sarah Knowlton and Jane Powell with Reathel Bean and Kathleen Doyle 
Set Design: David Jenkins 
Lighting Design: Ken Billington 
Costume Design: Julie Weiss 
Sound Design: Peter J. Fitzgerald 
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission  
Century Center Theater,  111 East 15th Street (Union Sq/Irving Pl) (212) 239-6200 
Opened July 27, 2000  
Reviewed by Les Gutman 7/28/2000 based on a July 26 performance

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