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Review | Two plays about allegedly horrible men, now in the era of cancel culture

NEW YORK — The opening lines of “Doubt” draw a contrast between collective and individual experience. “It was awful,” Father Flynn says of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination the year before the play is set. “But we were in it together!” How much worse, he asks the congregation, for someone to be “stricken by a private calamity?”

It could be a timely argument for live theater, that rare opportunity to breathe the same air and behold the same story in a fractured, screens-to-our-noses culture. The sermon concludes by trumpeting the power of doubt, which we can easily recognize as an endangered virtue in our age of polarization, conspiracy and mobs both virtual and in real life.

But uncertainty is curiously scarce in the first Broadway revival of “Doubt,” starring Liev Schreiber and Amy Ryan, which opened at the Todd Haimes Theatre on Thursday. To the question of whether Schreiber’s inscrutable Father Flynn has made advances on the lone Black student at a Bronx Catholic school, a suspicion that cements into certitude in the mind of Ryan’s acerbic Sister Aloysius, the answer seems too obvious.

Likewise at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, where Tobias Menzies stars as a small-town teacher accused of sexual misconduct by a mendacious little girl in “The Hunt,” the man’s innocence is a given while the drama generates heat from a “Crucible”-style arson of his reputation.

The context for such he-said-she-said tug-of-wars has drastically changed in the nearly 20 years since John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning “Doubt” premiered on Broadway. By now, some have a reflexive instinct to side with a less powerful accuser, while others are highly sensitized to the consequences of so-called cancellation.

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It is, in so many ways, an ideal time to capsize audience assumptions and leave us utterly disoriented. Which makes both productions, with their clear tilting of scales toward the plight of maligned men, seem if not reactionary then at least a little boring. Where’s the thrill of a trial when we already know there’s been no crime?

Scott Ellis’s staging of “Doubt,” for Roundabout Theatre Company, lavishes Catholic-level attention on surface detail. An imposing rectory, designed by David Rockwell, rotates to accommodate the putative principal’s office and a serene courtyard where the conversations are ex parte. Kenneth Posner’s dappled lighting suggests a heightened air of tension, casting a penumbra underfoot even in midafternoon. (Sound by Mikaal Sulaiman less subtly crescendos with significance.)

Review from 2019: ‘Doubt’ covered child abuse in the church a decade and a half ago. It’s still relevant.

But Shanley’s 90-minute quartet, subtitled “A Parable,” could just as easily be done on a blank stage, so densely does its language glitter with philosophical conundrums, particularly in its early scenes. (There’s comedy, too, ratcheted up here such that the story’s swift and serious turn seems unduly sharp.) Supporting performances from Zoe Kazan, as the doe-eyed sister ensnared by her own good intentions, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine, as the boy’s circumspect mother, are excellent.

But the lead performances are miscalibrated. Schreiber’s gruff, salt-of-the-earth Flynn lacks a threatening underside, like a rock without worms squirming beneath. Ryan, a last-minute replacement for Tyne Daly, who withdrew from the production for health reasons, wields Aloysius’s iron-fisted quips like daggers. But she seems to throw them for the sake of it, with an absence of fear or disgust that what she believes might actually be true.

The lie that fuels “The Hunt” is a baldfaced one, made by Clara (Kay Winard at the performance I attended), an implacable 5-year-old who mischaracterizes a scene we’ve just witnessed between her and Menzies’s Lucas, the lone male teacher at her school. Clara’s motives presumably stem from a troubled home life, and indeed the play, adapted for the stage by David Farr from the film by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm, is concerned with the fallibility of domestic order. No family structure can ever truly tame anyone’s desire for love.

‘The Hunt’ movie review from 2013

In case the story didn’t make that clear, director Rupert Goold stages the Almeida Theatre production in and around a rotating glass house, a visually striking but overdetermined design by Es Devlin. As a thoroughly sympathetic Lucas (Menzies is terrific) faces a thoroughly unwarranted fall from grace, an escalating drumbeat of primal masculinity encroaches from the rural periphery (think flanneled townsmen wearing ghoulish antlers a la “Yellowjackets,” in costumes by Evie Gurney).

The point seems to be that the sexes are inseparable from their essential natures. Boys will be boys, in other words, and women duplicitous. It’s a fairy tale hardly worth repeating nowadays without an incisive measure of doubt.

Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Scott Ellis. Sets, David Rockwell; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Mikaal Sulaiman. About 1 hour, 30 minutes. Through April 21 at Todd Haimes Theatre, 227 West 42nd St., New York. roundabouttheatre.org.

The Hunt, by Thomas Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm, adapted by David Farr. Directed by Rupert Goold. Sets, Es Devlin; lighting, Neil Austin; costumes, Evie Gurney; sound, Adam Cork. About 1 hour, 40 minutes. Through March 24 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 45 Water St., Brooklyn. stannswarehouse.org.

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