A Comfortable Truth

REVIEW by Willard Manus

LOS ANGELES -- Mark Kemble's A COMFORTABLE TRUTH--THE STORY OF A BOY AND HIS PRIEST is a bold, provocative and important play about sexual abuse in the Catholic church. The title is ironic, because the play deals with its subject in a manner that is anything but comforting. The world of predator priests who not only rape children but adults is a dark, tangled, evil one and Kemble doesn't shy away from immersing himself--and the audience--in it. There are no euphemisms in the play, no black and white characters, no easy revelations and resolutions. Its theme is the destruction of a family by Father Grant, a charming but psycopathic man of God (the superb Paul Lieber) who abuses the power invested in him by the church. That the Gordon family itself, the mother and father anyway (Shareen Mitchell and Greg Mullavy), has its own evil secrets is a sub-theme that gives complexity and density to the drama.

Also, Thomas, the Gordons's teenaged son (Zack Graham) is drawn in such a way as to eschew simplistic identification. Having been abused as a choir boy by Father Grant, Thomas is now attracted by punk and neo-Nazi heavy metal, music that expresses disgust with the conventional world. In a word, he's an unpleasant, rebellious and angry kid, yet it was he who blew the whistle on Father Grant and most deserves our understanding and compassion.

Another core character is Dr. Cunningham (Alan Blumenfeld), a hypnotherapist hired by the Church to try and deal with the Gordons's charges against Father Grant. He too is a flawed and compromised human being, prone to quackery, afraid to defy the church, yet conscientious and decent enough to feel horror and compassion for Grant's victims.

Used as a kind of altar-boy Greek chorus are Burkney Birgisson, Chris Blasman, Andrea Jajeh, Korbin James, Mirian Novak and Hunter Wood.

Juan Carlos Malpeli's multi-level set serves the play well, and Ryan Bourne, Jean Lee and Jordan Summers' lights, costumes & sound design, respectively, also help give A COMFORTABLE TRUTH its dark, moody atmosphere. Kemble, who directed his own work, has coaxed powerful, even unforgettable performances out of his actors (particularly Lieber and Mitchell).

A COMFORTABLE TRUTH runs 2 1/2 hours and could undoubtedly benefit from trimming and compression, but even in its somewhat raw, unfinished state this world premiere play still hits hard and unflinchingly. Let's hope the Catholic church will do something about the awful and shameful things Kemble has uncovered and dramatized so well.

At the Lee Strasberg Creative Center, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd, W. Hollywood through Feb 22.. Call (323) 650-777 or visit www.strasberg.com