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THEATER REVIEW : Audiences Can Laugh, but Heaven Help the Clergy When 'Moll' Arrives

April 15, 1993|T. H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONG BEACH — Irish playwright John B. Keane's parish house comedy, "Moll," can't be placed among the fiery, political Irish plays typical of the last 20 years. But political it is in its own way, which is gentle, warm and understanding, and full of Irish charm.

"Moll," on Long Beach Playhouse's Mainstage, describes the tenure of a priest's feisty housekeeper in the Parish House of Ballast, County Cork, Ireland. Her recommendation from a previous employer, a cleric with a sense of humor, describes her good ways and good works while in his employ.

But a letter from one of his curates describes the earthly hell she put him through.

Based on a probably apocryphal story passed from priest to priest, the play has Moll catering unabashedly to Canon Pratt, who welcomes the indulgences and ignores the anguish of his two young curates, Father Phil Brest and Father Joe Loron, over Moll's strident treatment of them.

The day of the parsonage housekeeper in Ireland is all but gone, but Keane uses the situation to shed some interesting light on life in a parish house. Moll's insistence that income can be derived from bingo and more bingo, that payment for Mass prayer cards go mostly to the canon--with a commission to her--along with her cost-cutting and rigid control of the priests' lives, is a far cry from the world of "Going My Way," but its aura is the same, as are its insights into keeping a church going.

Director Darlene Hunter-Chaffee wisely plays to the humor in Keane's play. It softens Keane's sometimes cynical tone and creates an affirmative mood that helps her actors find the core of the play.

The three clergymen Moll controls with scant effort couldn't be more right. Jim McElenney's Canon Pratt is kindly and has a fine sense of the comic. If he seems a bit pompous and distant at times, that's as it should be. Also on target is Dan Snook as Father Loron, who is determined to have a large choir even though he hasn't a note in his head. Snook faintly echoes the canon's pomposity, and he's often quite funny.

Reed Boyer's Father Brest, who most feels Moll's supposed injustices, cleverly mixes frustrations and ambitions into a likable adversary to the maneuvering Moll.

When Julie Ryan laughs, or at least smiles, as Moll, she keeps a good balance with the three priests. There are too many moments, though, when she seems too strident, sometimes even disagreeable. At those times Father Brest's anger seems all too justified, and Moll is less the icon she should be. A little more impish twinkle in Ryan's performance would help.

Kathleen Darcy and Ray Jack, as the village woman who didn't get Moll's job and the bumbling ancient she eventually marries, both shine in their brief scenes, but David Farjeon's bishop, who arrives at the end to give the plot its final twist, is overblown and made too much of.

Elisabeth McElroy and M. Scott Nine's set gives just the right Irish atmosphere for Keane's leg-pulling of church mores, and is lighted as brightly in Art Brandt's design as the gentle humor of the script.

"Moll," Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage, 5021 Anaheim St., Long Beach. Fridays-and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; matinees April 18 and May 2, 2 p.m. Ends May 15. $10. (310) 494-1616. Running time: 2 hours.

Jim McElenney Canon Pratt, P.P.

Reed Boyer Father Brest, C.C.

Dan Snook Father Loron, C.C.

Kathleen Darcy Bridgie Andover

Julie Ryan Moll

David Farjeon Bishop

Ray Jack Ulick

A Long Beach Playhouse production of John B. Keane's play. Directed by Darlene Hunter-Chaffee. Set design: Elisabeth McElroy, M. Scott Nine. Lighting: Art Brandt.

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