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Staying Out of the Deep End

Theater review: A good-looking, well-acted 'Mass Appeal' at the Gem in Garden Grove suffers only from writing that fails to penetrate the issue of faith.

March 26, 1997|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GARDEN GROVE — Making use of the Catholic Church, whether for tragedy or comedy, seems to have been a theatrical tradition of the 1970s and '80s. An array of writers have mined it for rich material.

John Pielmeyer did it in "Agnes of God." So did John Powers in "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?" and Christopher Durang in "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You."

In Bill C. Davis' 1980 serio-comedy, "Mass Appeal," being revived at the Grove Theater Center, the conflict between an idealistic seminarian and a realistic priest provides the dramatic grist for an airing of questions about the meaning of faith.

At the same time, a third character who never appears onstage--the homophobic monsignor whose autocratic rule at the seminary becomes a central issue--furnishes both seminarian Mark Dolson and the Rev. Tim Farley with a common enemy.

If "Mass Appeal" were a more satisfying play about the themes it tackles, the Grove would have something to shout from the rooftops. The stylish production, which opened over the weekend at the Grove's Gem Theater, is of high caliber: handsomely designed, well directed by Kevin Cochran and acted with an entertaining flair.

Steven Opyrchal brings to the role of the young idealist an attractive, lanky stage presence. He gives a vigorous but modulated performance full of deft shadings, mindful not just of Mark's emotional exuberance and naive self-confidence but also of his youthful uncertainties and hesitations.

As Farley, a veteran of the church who knows the ins and outs of its institutional politics, David Allen Jones portrays a tippling, middle-age priest who tends his well-to-do flock with "harmless lies" and timeworn sermons, always careful to pay lip service to traditional orthodoxy.

His so-called "dialogue sermons," one of which opens the play, serve as a sort of verbal catechism to draw out the attitudes and opinions of the congregation--except when he gets more than he bargains for (as he does from Mark). His "3-C Series," another set of sermons, deals with "the current crisis in Catholicism" in typically complacent fashion (which Mark, of course, considers hypocritical).

*

Jones offers a sturdy, sympathetic portrait of Farley--not easy to do, given the priest's weak, fundamentally unlikable character. He's a man of the cloth whose pride in his ability to make practical compromises is, in fact, the mirror image of a spineless lack of principles.

Despite the apparent weightiness of its material, "Mass Appeal" aims to please, not unlike Farley. It prefers to skirt issues, presuming that merely by raising them a service has been performed.

The writing is always clever. When the priest tries to teach the seminarian not to lecture the congregation from the pulpit, knowing from long trials how not to alienate his parishioners, he notes: "It's no accident the collection comes after the sermon. It's like the Nielsen ratings."

But nobody except characters in a play speak as they do here.

"I never liked song-and-dance theology," Mark says at one point. "I see," the priest replies. "And I'm Father Bojangles." It's too clever by half. And there's such a steady stream of witticisms that they become monotonous.

*

Predictable attitudinizing also hurts the play, if not the performances. Mark's indignation is shown to have a large element of self-righteousness; Farley's sense of compromise is shown to be a product not just of hypocrisy but also of wisdom and experience. When the father gives his closing sermon, the stand he takes will not come as a surprise.

The production is set for the most part in the priest's study, on a sharply raked stage. The study, bathed in warm lighting, makes excellent use of the space and has the right appointments. A movable pulpit is at the other end of the stage for the sermons, and a hexagon-shaped window is backlighted to lend a sense of time passing. The costumes are perfect.

"Mass Appeal"--even the title is a play on words--has been a staple of community theaters for nearly two decades. The Grove's exemplary production shows why it is likely to remain so for many more: It skims easily across the surface of troubling material, giving its two characters a pleasant way out.

* "Mass Appeal," Grove Theater Center, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 6 p.m. Sunday. Ends April 6. $16.50-$24.50 (714) 741-9550. Running time: 2 hours.

David Allen Jones: Father Tim Farley

Steven Opyrchal: Mark Dolson

A Grove Theater Center production of a play by Bill C. Davis. Director: Kevin Cochran. Producers: Cochran and Charles Johanson. Set design: Leonard Ogden. Lighting design: David Darwin. Costume design: Don Nelson. Sound design: David Ortega.

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