The Exorcist/by John Pielmeier/directed by John Doyle/Geffen Playhouse/through August 12
It's quite a shame when a well-written, absorbing play has three strikes against it from the onset. Such is the case with The Exorcist by John Pielmeier. The best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty and the 1973 boxoffice blockbuster film of the same name were so powerfully gripping and unforgettable that, with the play coming along 40 years later, for those of us that lived through the nightmare to end all nightmares, we've been there, seen that. For those of a newer, unfamiliar generation, it won't have enough special effects. Wisely, for my generation, the spinning head and green vomit in the original film are not recreated onstage. But, as a result, many may tune out or turn off preferring a midnight screening of the film on Netflix. As I already said, a shame, as Pielmeieir's script is psychologically thrilling on its own, so apt for the mature, questioning adult mind, and the production is extremely well directed by John Doyle and superbly acted by a first-rate ensemble headed by Brooke Shields in her best and most remarkable performance to date. But is all of this enough? Probably not.
Pielmeier, if you recall, penned the highly successful Agnes of God, first a thought-provoking play, then a movie, based on a real life case of a young nun who became pregnant while in the convent and made headlines, telling the world she had been carrying a child of God. A curious and riveting case, but little heard of, when it came to the stage. In the play Mother Superior, the nun in question and a psychiatrist appointed by the court argue the nun's sanity. Did she behave improperly or was it divine intervention? His Exorcist bears a similar style and format with doctors and clergymen debating what is really happening to Regan, raising the issue of the very existence of the Devil. For some, the issues are forever stimulating especially if the production has this theatricality, with the actors serving as Greek chorus, omnipresent, like God himself for devout Catholics. Doyle's tight blocking where the action switches from bedroom to hospital and back to bedroom again within split seconds works beautifully, as does the sound design from Dan Moses Schreier - with quick, repulsive discordant shrills, Jane Cox's brilliant lighting design, especially in its heartbeat-like flickering and flashes, and creative effects from Teller (of Penn and Teller fame).
The cast is wonderfully and intensely focused throughout especially Shields as the despairing mother Chris, Harry Groener as the drunken director Uncle Burke Dennings, Roslyn Ruff, so caring in her spurt-like appearances, and Emily Yetter, amazing in the physical demands of the role of Regan. David Wilson Barnes as Damien Karras and particularly Richard Chamberlain as Father Merrin are exceedingly in control by the very nature of the men they are playing. Barnes has moments of guilt and emotional release that he is allowed to play out in the script, but Chamberlain, also acting as narrator, plays with the utmost grace and intelligence but with far less passion. I don't believe it to be an actor choice, but it's built-in, and does at least add a dimension of doubt/uncertainty to the whole question of God/Devil, Love/Pride at hand. In smaller roles, let's credit fine actors Stephen Bogardus, Manoel Felciano and Tom Nelis. Scott Pask's dark, dungeon-like set and basic costuming in black, white and earth tones add appropriate touches.