Brothers in Alms

The convoluted political negotiations surrounding Pope John Paul II's trip to Cuba next week seem facile compared to the grave-robbing, relic-switching, and sundry ecumenical dirty tricks attendant to a papal visit in playwright Michael Hollinger's farce Incorruptible. Even though the play's setting in France sometime around 1250 A.D. is inarguably remote, some pious theatergoers may nonetheless feel that Catholicism isn't suitable material for a comedy. They needn't worry. The virtually humorless two-hour production of Incorruptible now being presented at Manalapan's Florida Stage gave me a respectful understanding of the concept of purgatory -- and I'm not even Catholic.

If they were a Gregorian order, the medieval monks at the struggling Priseaux monastery might chant "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" They contend with townspeople who won't tithe and fickle pilgrims who no longer pay to worship at the bones of St. Foy, which lie upon the chapter house's altar. As the would-be comedy begins, Brother Martin (Dan Leonard), who apparently missed the sermon on avarice, dickers with a haggard-looking peasant woman (Viki Boyle) over the price of a prayer to St. Foy:

"I don't have a penny," she pleads.
"If you don't have a penny," the monk replies, "you don't have a prayer." (This early exchange coaxed a rare laugh out of the audience the night I saw the production, indicating that the old woman wasn't the only one on the stage without a prayer.)

Although finally allowed by the monastery's Abbot (Traber Burns) to worship, the villager spitefully informs the brothers that she's off to spend what little money she has at the neighboring Abbey of Bernay, which boasts a holy relic that is producing miracles throughout the countryside. Nor is she alone. The agitated novice Brother Felix (Tom Wahl) breathlessly announces that the pope is forgoing a visit with the brothers in order to stay at the abbey, whose cutthroat Abbess (Lourelene Snedeker) claims to possess the real bones of St. Foy.

Acknowledging that they can raise the money needed to continue their charitable work only by hosting the pope and showing him a fully functioning, miracle-granting relic, the Abbot, Brother Martin, and Brother Felix, along with a muscle-bound novice named Brother Olf (David Bugher), undertake a zany scheme that involves the peasant woman's promiscuous daughter Marie (Leila Piedrafita) and the crooked minstrel Jack (Charlie Kevin), whom she intends to marry.

Hollinger appears to have borrowed more than his play's setting from Catholicism -- his pacing also recalls the institution that took 342 years to pardon Galileo for teaching that the Earth wasn't the center of the universe. Consequently the details of the monks' con game aren't revealed until the play is half over. Without giving away too much, however, I can tell you that the plot involves blackmail, missing sweethearts, desecrated graves, mutilated corpses, and the faked body of a nondecaying "incorruptible" saint. The latter ruse is no small feat in a production this rotten.

Hollinger, who teaches play-writing at Villanova University and the University of Pennsylvania, won the F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Theatre Artist in 1996 largely based on the acclaim Incorruptible received after it premiered at Philadelphia's Arden Theatre Company. (The first of his three full-length plays, Incorruptible evolved through four years of developmental readings and workshops before opening in 1996.) The Philadelphia Inquirer praised its "remarkable, dexterous craftsmanship" and labeled the piece a "funny, endearing black comedy." If that particular notice accurately reflects the state of local theater in that city, then I understand why W. C. Fields reportedly said that he'd rather be dead than alive and in Philadelphia.

Eschewing real satire Hollinger ridicules Catholicism while shying away from drawing any direct modern parallel -- even though the monks' greed and the faithful's clamor for a celebrity saint of the month provide ample opportunity to do so. Just as it ignores contemporary allusions, Incorruptible also declines to engage in any ironic historic revisionism, despite a program note that states "this sort of thing really happened." Because Hollinger fails to illuminate his Dark Ages religious comedy with satire or historical insight, it's a mystery why he bothers to lampoon religion at all, unless he thinks men cavorting in robes are inherently funny. And yet he could be on to something: Witness the inexplicable success of Nunsense and its two sequels.

Handed a one-joke script bereft of even snappy one-liners, director Gail Garrisan strives to present a no-holds-barred farce, gamely attempting to camouflage Incorruptible's numerous shortcomings with a catalog of well-known comic conventions: Great thunderclaps sound at every mention of the Abbess' name; a chase around a pillar is interrupted while the quarry stops to watch his pursuer continue to circle the column; and a person hiding in a sack unwittingly gets shuffled among body bags in a macabre shell game. But it would take one of St. Foy's miracles to pull off a comedy without comics.

With the exceptions of the over-the-top Boyle and Snedeker, the cast resembles a convention of vaudeville's best straight men, all of them seriously pursuing their wild scheme completely unaware of its lunacy. Forgoing comic turns in lieu of dramatic character development, the actors opt for realism rather than milking the script for guffaws. Granted, Burns earnestly conveys the Abbot's frustration at not being able to go into his family's bread-baking business, and Wahl tugs at our hearts with Brother Felix's tale of unrequited love, but they forget that it isn't as important to impart what makes a clown cry as it is to demonstrate how he makes us laugh. Without a few characters to propel the comedy with winking asides, Incorruptible is less a farce than it is an unsupervised outing to a facility for criminally insane religious workers.

In keeping with the production's no-nonsense approach, Michael Amico creates an imposing set of cluttered manuscripts, dense stone columns, and leaded windows that wouldn't be out of place in a Shakespeare history. On the other hand, costume designer Erin Stearns Amico injects some whimsy into this dull staging with her silly minstrel outfits for Jack and Marie. Her efforts are aided by Stephen D. Miller, who replaces the candlelight gloom of the age with a sunny ambiance that literally lightens up the dark comedy.

Toward the end of Incorruptible, Brother Felix defends his belief in saints and miracles to a disillusioned Jack, who trusts only in what he can see and experience. Although I feel sure Hollinger meant for us to be moved by Brother Felix's conviction, I identified more with Jack. While the script's vaudevillian intentions are more evident than is the hand of God, I just couldn't get possessed by the comic spirit.

Written by Michael Hollinger. Directed by Gail Garrisan. Starring Traber Burns, Dan Leonard, Leila Piedrafita, and Charlie Kevin. Through January 18. Florida Stage, 262 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan, 800-514-3837.

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Savannah Whaley