Religion

Liev Schreiber dons a collar to play a Catholic priest in revival of ‘Doubt’ on Broadway

NEW YORK (AP) — Liev Schreiber was in a reflective mood one recent Sunday when he got a call about possibly starring in the play “Doubt” on Broadway.

“I had just come out of Mass with my in-laws, which is odd for a Jewish boy from the Lower East Side,” the actor and new dad says with a laugh.

He was in Montauk, on the tip of Long Island, where Schreiber has been moved by watching townspeople gather weekly for Catholic services at the local church.

“Maybe it’s my age or maybe it’s having another kid, but I’ve been thinking a lot about faith and its place in our society and culture,” says the 56-year-old Tony Award winner.

He has found the perfect place to chew on those ideas and more in a revival of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play that lands on Broadway during Lent. It opens March 7.

The play is set in 1964 in New York City, and Schreiber plays the charming, charismatic and jovial Father Flynn, a new middle school teacher and basketball coach. His foil is the vinegary, steely-spined principal, Sister Aloysius, who forbids the kids to sing “Frosty the Snowman” and is suspicious of ballpoint pens.

The two figures butt heads over a hazy allegation that he may have sexually abused a 12-year-old male student, which he denies. The audience goes back and forth between the two, weighing the evidence but never sure — lost in doubt. “What do you do when you’re not sure?” Father Flynn asks the audience.

“There’s this conversation about doubt as a unifying concept that I really think is interesting in our deeply polarized society right now,” says Schreiber. “If we can just all agree that we don’t agree, we might make some progress instead of eviscerating each other and canceling each other.”

Director Scott Ellis, interim artistic director of the Roundabout Theatre Company, said he had Schreiber — and only Schreiber — on his list of people to play Father Flynn. “Let me say, I had no doubt about it,” he says.

The Tony Award-winning “Doubt” — made into a 2008 movie starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep — was written in 2004 and clearly captures the nation’s Catholic sex abuse crisis. But it also echoes the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when certainty was expressed about the presence of weapons of mass destruction.

“It’s not about him. It’s about doubt. It’s about what doubt does to us,” Schreiber says. “I think that’s a really interesting conversation right now about what doubt is doing to all of us, how we are using doubt, how we are weaponizing doubt.”

Ellis and Schreiber had long talks about the play, and both agreed they didn’t want to approach Father Flynn strictly in a did he-did he not paradigm.

“It was really a much larger picture of where we’re at in our society now. How do we look at this story through different eyes? It’s 20 years ago. We’re a different society. We’re in a different place, with such a divide,” Ellis says.

This isn’t the first time Schreiber’s work has touched sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. He played a man who had been abused by a priest in “Ray Donovan” and portrayed the Boston Globe editor who pressed his paper to fully investigate the cover-up in Boston in “Spotlight.”

“There’s just so much to talk about in this play, and I can feel it from the audiences. When we finish, they’re buzzing, which is such a treat to be in something like that,” he says after a recent two-preview Wednesday.

For “Doubt,” Schreiber watched the movie — “I’m one of those actors who openly admit that acting is theft, so I watch everything,” he says — and talked with the playwright. He also visited the Mount Saint Vincent Convent in the Bronx and interviewed nuns and priests.

He says he was profoundly moved by the sense of service and mission the older men and women had before it was hit by the semi-truck of abuse litigation. “It kind of restored my faith in faith,” he says.

Schreiber — a lifelong New Yorker who won a Tony for “Glengarry Glen Ross” in 2005 — grounds his performance in the neighborhood where Shanley lived, his accent and mannerisms very Bronx-forward.

“I think if you can get it right in a microcosm, then it becomes macro, if that makes any sense,” he says. “New York is very important to me as a person. It’s my home. I’ve been here all my life. If nothing else, it’s a petri dish for the world in this very compelling way. By that, I mean, a petri dish for conflict, diversity, resolution — culture.”

Preparing for the Broadway run was complicated by the late withdrawal of Tyne Daly, who experienced an undisclosed health-related issue. Amy Ryan replaced her as Sister Aloysius and quickly won Schreiber’s respect, calling her a “theater athlete” by being ready in just a week.

Ryan took “a risk that you just don’t see actors taking anymore,” he says. Ryan initially hid script pages around the set and had a monitor with the play until she was fully ready.

“I was just blown away by her commitment,” Schreiber says.

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits




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