Yesterday, as planned, I saw the matinee of 100 Saints You Should Know at Playwrights Horizons. (By the way, can anyone explain why this show is still "in previews"? It will play more preview performances than post-opening performances!) The first of the 6 shows I'll see there this year, it was generally solid, even if I hope some of the other plays will be even better.
Author Kate Fodor describes her play as the story of one person losing faith while another gains it. The former is Father Matthew, a youngish priest who has just left his church under cloudy circumstances. The latter is Theresa, a single mom who cleans the rectory. The other characters are Abby, Theresa's rebellious 16-year-old daughter (Abby and Theresa could be described as "the anti-Gilmore Girls"); Colleen, Matthew's Irish-immigrant mother; and Garrett, a troubled teenager who delivers groceries to Colleen.
Perhaps because Theresa is played by the cast's most recognizable name (West Wing star Janel Moloney), the press materials describe her as the lead. But I found myself much more interested in Father Matthew's journey. Theresa has the happy task of coming to terms with her life and experiencing spiritual growth, while Matthew is conflicted about his identity and feels like he has no one to turn to--not even his mother, not even God. Moloney does fine in her part, but I was really impressed with Jeremy Shamos as Father Matthew. The role is difficult--requiring a big soliloquy, a moment of connecting with another human being for the first time in years, many scenes of smiling a tight smile to hide his inner turmoil--and he really does a great job. Of course, in some of his scenes he is aided by veteran actress Lois Smith as Colleen, a sweet old Irishwoman and passive-aggressive monster of a mother.
Zoe Kazan does a good job as angsty Abby, in her last scene going to that deep place of adolescent self-loathing (we've all been there, but not eight times a week onstage). Still, I also agree with what the late-teenage girls next to me were saying: though Kazan was good, her role, as written, reinforces the stereotype that all teenagers are like this. Garrett is also stereotyped, especially as played by Will Rogers, who relies on too many external tricks (jittery movements, making his voice crack, etc.) to convey that he is socially awkward.
My playwriting teacher, evaluating student work, is fond of saying "I like it, but I think it needs a twist to it." And that's how I feel about 100 Saints You Should Know--I like it, but it needs a twist. (Though there's a surprising plot development in Act 2, it seems to come out of nowhere, rather than feeling organic to the play.) Usually when my prof says this, I think "Easier said than done"--even if you can tell that your play lacks something, a good twist is hard to find. But in the case of 100 Saints, I can see an obvious place for a twist, and in fact it surprised me that this didn't happen.
OK. Eventually we learn that Father Matthew is disgraced because someone at the rectory found homoerotic nude photos (by artist George Platt Lynes) in his desk. But wouldn't it make the play stronger and more concise if it was Theresa who found the photos? There's every reason she could, since she's the cleaning lady. A friend of mine pointed out, though, that if Theresa found the photos, she probably wouldn't report them to anybody, so Matthew's secret would be safe. Point taken: the play still requires an offstage character to report Matthew. Still, if Theresa had seen the photos and not told anyone, that would mean she carried a guilty secret, too, just like the priest. Theresa, who idealizes Matthew, would see with her own eyes that he is just a man, and fallible. Which is much more powerful than having him simply tell her about the photos, as he does in Act 2. Honestly, during that scene, after Matthew confesses his disgrace, I expected Theresa to confess that she knew all along. And that would nicely complicate things.
I can even see this twist as a way to fix the laughable opening scene, which runs about 2 minutes and is all stilted exposition. Theresa is cleaning a toilet in the rectory, Matthew enters, she introduces herself, they briefly chat, end of scene. Very little conflict or drama--and everything we learn gets reiterated in the next scene, when Theresa tells Abby about her job. But what if, instead of cleaning a toilet, Theresa was cleaning the desk, and the play opened with her discovering the nude photos, and then Father Matthew walked in, and she chatted with him in a seemingly lighthearted way, but underneath there would be so much subtext and tension? That would surely hook the audience!
Ah, well. I'm not trying to rewrite Kate Fodor's play for her; maybe she wanted to avoid that kind of "hidden guilty secrets" playwriting. But it can work very well, if done right.
I also want to talk about the ending with people who've seen the play. I think it's meant to be quietly hopeful, but I see it as a lot more ambiguous than that, even depressing. Colleen asks her son to help her pray, and though reluctant at first, he does. It seems we're supposed to think, "Ah yes, there is still hope, Matthew still has some faith, the world is not bleak." But, on the other hand, isn't Matthew just acting like the dutiful son again--the son who went to Harvard, who became a priest, who eats food he doesn't really want, all because his mother asked it of him? If Father Matthew ends up returning to the church, denying his need to love and be loved by another human being, isn't that a tragedy? His journey isn't resolved in the same way Theresa's is, which annoyed me since I found him more compelling.
Photo of Janel Moloney and Jeremy Shamos by Joan Marcus (broadwayworld.com)