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A CurtainUp Review
Sin (A Cardinal Deposed)

What, Cardinal Law, were you specifically doing to reach out and help the victims of Paul Shanley's unspeakable evil? --- Krieger, a question to which Law's response is silence.
John Cullum
John Cullum
(Photo: Carol Rosegg )
Alas, the accumulated evidence about priests who have sexually abused young boys has grown steadily. Public awareness regarding the church hierarchy's response to the problem exploded with the abuse scandals surrounding priests in the Boston archdiocese under Cardinal Bernard Law's watch. As depositions taken in the 2002 case against the fourth largest diocese in the U.S. made plain the church culture encouraged a pattern by which the abusive priests' behavior was treated with band aids, child endangering re-appointments and pensions, while the victims' need for solace fell between the cracks of the church bureaucracy.

In his play about the case that led to Law's resignation, Michael Murphy opted for the true-to-the-source documentary approach used in The Laramie Project and The Exonerated rather than to add fictional dialogue in the interest of a more dynamic theatrical experience. Consequently, Sin, this season's first play from the always interesting New Group, is a courtroom drama that must rely on the actors and the testimony's power to stir our emotions no matter how matter of fact or familiar the words that are spoken.

With John Cullum to play Cardinal Law and Mr. Murphy's script masterfully taming the voluminous depositions, Sin (A Cardinal Deposed) succeeds in its mission. It is an authentic, absorbing experience that makes its point without melodramatics but is as relentlessly brutal as a drill boring into an abscessed tooth. The straightforward adherence to factual testimony is often somewhat static, but not enough to diminish the play's potency and the likelihood that you'll leave the theater still fired up with sympathy for the victims and outrage at those who did so little to prevent the abuse problem from becoming epidemic.

Cullum, who played Urinetown magnate Caldwell B. Cladwell with such gleeful villainy, portrays the Cardinal's moral turpitude with finely calibrated understatement. Anyone who appreciates good acting will want to see Cullum's bit-by-bit mood shifts -- from somewhat aloof and self-assured ennui to sarcasm and barely repressed irritation, then to defensiveness, and, eventually, to speechless defeat. This actor can speak reams with no more than a slightly raised eyebrow.

Law enters the deposition room, courteous and cool. He seems to see himself above and apart from a corporate CEO yet quickly comes off as if demanding "trust what I say and ignore what I do." His testimony is a lesson in the buttoned-up legalese common to any headline making CEO we've seen sidestepping accusations of malfeasance. His replies invariably include the phrase "I have no active memory of that." When Krieger presses him to define this vague terminology, Law comments sarcastically that "it feels like I'm in a moral theology exam here."

Carl Forsman, who has been making a name for himself as the artistic director of his own Keen Company, has staged the ninety minute play for optimum tautness and realistic lawyer-witness interaction. The testimony from the various witnesses -- all the women played by Cynthia Darlow and all the men by Dan Daily -- moves the spotlight from the tense hearing room to the sides of the stage as one witness at a time emerges from darkness (an effective lighting job by Josh Bradford). The two lawyers, John Leonard Thompson as Law's representative, William Varley, and Thomas Jay Ryan as Orson Krieger, the man representing the victims and their families, get the nuances of the legal back and forth just right. Ryan is especially good as the lawyer who can at times barely refrain himself from losing his temper as Law and his legal opponent continue to stonewall his questions.

A sixth character, Patrick McSorley (Pablo T. Schreiber), the brother of one of the key witnesses, has the smallest role. Until almost the very end, he sits silently in a chair placed against the hearing room's wall. But there's a tension that seems to rise from this tall young man like a small flame about to billow into a blazing fire. When McSorley does finally speak, his almost whispered monologue leaves the whole audience in a hushed silence.

Will plays like Sin make a difference?

While many victims have been financially remunerated, the culture of delegating and protecting priests which defined Cardinal Law's tenure in Boston is not dead nor does it apply to one city or even this country. Cardinal Law resigned his post but remains a Cardinal in Rome, where the Pope recently appointed him Archpriest of St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. To be fair, note should be made about church dignitaries like the recently deceased Cardinal James A. Hickey who led the Roman Catholic Church in the nation's capital for twenty years. According to his obituary (NYT 10/24/04), prior to his retirement in 2000, the Cardinal dealt with the sex-abuse scandals "forthrightly, establishing a review board and a policy not to return abusive priests to the ministry." The obituary did not state if that review board included people outside the church and precluded bringing in law enforcement authorities.

Postscript: I recently saw another and quite different new play on this subject by Ronan Noone, a young Irishman now living in Cardinal Law's former bailiwick. Noone focused on a group of young men in a small Irish Parish bearing the scars of a sadistic pedophile priest. It too packed quite a wallop. To read the review go here

Sin (A Cardinal Deposed)
Written by Michael Murphy
Directed by Carl Forsman
Cast: John Cullum as Cardinal Bernard F. Law. Dan Daily DSS employee & others), Cynthia Darlow (Maryetta Dussourd & others), Thomas Jay Ryan (Orson Krieger), Pablo Schreiber (Patrick McSorley), John Leonard Thompson (William Varley)
Set Design: Nathan Heverin
Costume Design: Theresa Squire
Lighting Design: Josh Bradford
Sound Design: Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission
The New Group at the Clurman Theater, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, 212/239-6200
10/11/04 to 12/04/04; opening 10/26.
Monday to Saturday at 8:00 PM, matinees on Saturday at 2:00 PM.
Tickets: $51.25
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 10/21 press performance
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