January 30, 2004





Priestly abuse fuels psychodrama


"Evil" isn't too strong a word for priests who abuse young parishioners' childlike trust to coerce them into sex; it's not even too strong a word for the apparent conspiracy of silence at high levels of the Catholic Church that effectively shielded such sexual predators from censure until quite recently.


But for playwright/director Mark Kemble, priestly pedophilia is not an evil born of mere human weakness and exacerbated by deep denial. It is a metaphysical, near-Satanic force of corruption, embodied here by smiling, diabolical Father Grant (Paul Lieber). An equal-opportunity predator, this busy "neighborhood padre" apparently assaulted 10-year-old Thomas Gordon and his mother and father on the same historic November day JFK was assassinated. Father Grant even looks a bit like Lee Harvey Oswald, people tell him. Hear the symbols crash, ladies and gentleman.


The play looks back on this mythical death of Catholic innocence from 1974. Thomas (Zack Graham), now a 19-year-old punk with his own unpromising rap sheet, is making accusations about Father Grant; conveniently, he's seeing a church-employed psychiatrist (Alan Blumenfeld) who can be trusted to quietly discredit them. The good doc's favorite method appears to be hypnotizing his characters with a handheld clicker, letting them free-associate, then springing them awake with the words, "Spark anything?"


This sort of trick is fair enough for basic exposition, but Kemble overuses it. And as a crucible of catharsis, the shrink's couch is too easy a shortcut for Kemble's mountingly ludicrous psychodrama.


His staging is often deft and striking, with robed acolytes intoning prayers and supplying props and effects from dark crannies of Juan Carlos Malpeli's creepy set. And his actors--who also include a searing Shareen Mitchell and a properly pathetic Greg Mullavey as Thomas' parents--are top-flight. Too bad Kemble's righteous outrage at the worst of priestly sins has him aiming too broadly here to strike any real targets.

--Rob Kendt


"A Comfortable Truth," presented by the Group at Strasberg in association with Superior Street Productions at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Feb. 22. $25. (323) 650-7777. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.