nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 29, 2006
It seems to me that our current obsession with "reality" has manifested itself in a paucity of fiction about the war our country is now embroiled in. In the theatre, at least, we've had plenty of docudramas from Guantanamo to Stuff Happens that try to put a spin on actual events; but there have been very few new plays in the tradition of Watch on the Rhine or The Hasty Heart or Home of the Brave that seek to reveal human truths about war through the vehicle of an author's imagination.
So Tim Marks's new play The Cleric is almost anomalous in our present climate, and so I'm grateful to Mind the Gap Theatre for bringing it to the NYC stage. It takes place in an unnamed military detention facility sometime during the past two or three years, where an Irish American priest named Father Sean Pearson is being held under suspicion of being a terrorist. Father Sean was taken captive 17 years before by Hezbollah in Beirut; all of the other hostages were released, but Father Sean never was and eventually was presumed to have been killed (his one American relative has had him declared dead several years before the play begins).
Except now Father Sean has re-emerged, picked up by American soldiers in a Taliban camp, where it appears he has been consorting with "the enemy." Sean's interrogators claim that he was seen playing football with the Taliban and that he spent time with a senior Muslim cleric who was closely associated with Osama bin Laden. These two Americans—hot head John Cervantes and the apparently more reasonable Bob Marsh—are assigned to get whatever information they can out of the priest. Father Sean claims to know nothing of import, though seemingly incriminating details keep slipping out as the interrogation proceeds. All that Sean wants is a priest, so that he may make confession for acts that, he says, are worse than anything Marsh or Cervantes have accused him of.
Marks's script veers between military thriller—as the two American officers play good cop/bad cop with their unforthcoming prisoner and try to figure out the truth about his involvement with the Taliban—and psychological drama—exploring Father Sean's guilt and his need for absolution. For me, the latter aspects are the more successful, in particular the intriguing church vs. state twist that's added when Marsh and Cervantes rather shockingly subvert Father Sean's confession once a Catholic priest is brought in to meet with him. Against this potent backdrop, the "did he/didn't he" controversy feels less interesting (and it's ultimately played out in a less satisfying fashion).
The Cleric is unavoidably political: Cervantes represents Rumsfeld's army, ready to do whatever it takes to get required information out of the prisoner, while Marsh speaks for a more temperate approach that will pass muster under the Geneva Convention. (There's actually a scene where Marks makes this conflict literal, with the two men debating their disparate approaches; it's too obvious, and slows down the action.) Director Paula D'Alessandris and fight director Mark Olsen don't flinch from showing us Cervantes's extreme brutality (along with Marsh's own tactics, which aren't exactly a walk in the park); one of the things I found myself thinking throughout was whether torture on any level could ever accomplish anything useful in terms of gathering intelligence.
D'Alessandris does fine work by Marks's script. The Cleric is staged in 59E59's smallest space, which is probably not large enough to properly accommodate it: Maruti Evans's terrific set, which shows the interrogation room and a control room right next door, is not fully visible from all seats in the house. But the play's tension never flags, and the performances are all commendable, particularly Richard T. Lester's as Father Sean and Sean Heeney as Father Neil, the army priest who eventually hears his confession. Armand DesHarnais and James Kloiber play Cervantes and Marsh, the former with raw bravado, the latter with studied intelligence. Rounding out the cast is Daniel Haughey as a shadowy figure who is a liaison from the Defense Department.
The Cleric raises important, powerful issues, and holds them up to scrutiny in a more human and accessible way than the 6 o'clock news or a docudrama drawn from it ever can. At least in the very confined spaces of this production, I wonder if it's putting these problems too close to the audience: the intimacy is overpowering, and may keep us from achieving the proper level of perspective: maybe The Cleric is really a screenplay more than a stage play.
In any event, it's compelling theatre, and certainly helps focus us on subjects that we might be too willing to shut out of our daily consciousnesses.