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By Thomas C. Oden

The Church's Demons

One wouldn't expect a play about an aging Anglican clergyman to pack such a punch as to sweep all four Best Play awards on the London stage. Yet such was the acclaim that greeted David Hare's "Racing Demon" when first produced at the Royal National Theatre in 1990. Why it took so long to get to America is anyone's guess.

"Racing Demon" is one of a trilogy of plays (along with "Murmuring Judges" and "The Absence of War") in which Hare examines Britain's tottering institutions. It sets before us a story embodying a debate about divine compassion and human care, as well as a slew of issues concerning faith, revelation, homosexuality and ministry, prayer, pastoral care of the poor, and the role of the church in society.

As I settled into the plush seats of the inviting arena of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, I wondered if this play would offer more of the same sort of unfair stereotyping we have seen so often in portrayals of clergy, who are generally depicted as bumbling, hyperpious, sterile, forgetful, wheedling, and whining--that is, when they are not homicidal maniacs who quote Scripture while dispatching their victims. But Hare gives us a plausible picture of four Anglican priests who operate a social service in an impoverished area of London.

All action takes place in an austere raised space shaped like a cross. The spare, abstemious staging and artistic direction of Richard Eyre make the spectator feel like a participant-observer in a musty church or around its seamy edges. Eyre and company have re-created their London visual setting for this New York performance and populated it with an excellent set of experienced American actors: Josef Sommer (as the elderly liberal clergyman, Lionel Espy), Michael Cumpsty (as his young evangelical assistant, Tony Ferris), Kathryn Meisle (as Tony's girlfriend, Frances Parnell), Kathleen Chalfant (as the head parson's passive-aggressive wife).

Liberal and evangelical clerical prototypes provide the central conflict ...

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