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The Dead Boy
by Laura Hitchcock
It's taken ten years for an American theatre to mount The Dead Boy, Joe Pintauro's searing play inspired by the scandal alleging that the priest who founded New York City's Covenant House sexually abused one of the homeless youths in the institution founded to protect them. The deftly woven drama receives its U. S. premiere in a first rate production at the Laurelgrove Theatre, directed by Jack Heller.
Pintauro goes beyond the predictable themes of guilt, religion and sexuality. His key characters are Father Sheridan (Stephen Nichols), the priest accused of having sex with Will Draper (Derek Sitter). Sitter also plays Sheridan as a young priest, giving the play an added dimension. Perhaps more villainous than Draper is Tony McGuire (Cyril O'Reilly), a former seminarian turned journalist who investigates the allegations. He is pitted against The Cardinal (Travis Michael Holder) and his assistant Father Rosetti (Lorry Goldman).
Glints of humor and realistic confrontations, in which the priests and cardinal call each other by their first names, give the play a welcome grounding. The action encompasses an accusation recanted, and a persistent journalist, whose earlier disillusionment with Sheridan makes his investigative journalism a remorseless dissection. The final betrayal of Sheridan by McGuire is an act that puts the concept of trust firmly in the scales.
The play's principal weakness is a lack of clarification of McGuire's action, even after his final confrontation with The Cardinal. The reporter has issues that are sensed but never resolved, leaving his high-minded vendetta a curiously one-note crusade. Rosetti delivers a brief coda summarizing the fate of the characters but McGuire's ghost is left hanging. Sheridan, whose weakness invites his seduction by Draper, seems like an innocent compared to Draper and McGuire.
Pintauro paints very clearly the cost of betrayal to the individual, in this case, a journalist who may not care what he's paying. Although the end may justify the means. McGuire's betrayal calls to mind the words of another churchman, John Donne, who wrote "Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind." The playwright skillfully weaves in the characters' past histories of child abuse and depicts the desperate need for love that makes children vulnerable. He has a keen ear for dialogue and the play is exceptionally well constructed.
The subtle strength of the fine cast is exemplified by the way in which each actor holds the stage. The pyrotechnical dual role of the hustler Draper and The Young Priest, given its full due here by Derek Sitter, could easily overshadow the cast but that doesn't happen here. Nichols anchors the play with the sensitive realism of his conflicted Sheridan. O'Reilly makes a piercing zealot of the journalist. Travis Michael Holder's magisterial Cardinal has strength, warmth and a distinctive speech pattern. Lorry Goldman brings gentle humor to Father Rosetti, a supportive character in several senses of the word. It's unusual to find a play with five such strong roles and to find actors who inhabit them so well.
Gregory Von Dare has created a lighting design that would put larger theatres to shame. Set Designer Scott Cheek has a tiny playing space to work with which he has covered with crucifixes. The Dead Boy is the second production of the Laurelgrove, off to an auspicious start under Artistic Director Jack Heller, who is to be credited for the taut pace and sensitivity of this production.