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EW talks with John Patrick Shanley about his new play

EW talks with John Patrick Shanley about his new play — Author of ”Doubt, a parable” discusses his success and the characters in his subtle, staged critique of the Bush White House

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Note to playwrights: Beware of printing your e-mail address in Playbill. ”One guy offered a different ending,” says an amused John Patrick Shanley of a response to his play Doubt, a Parable. ”He had new dialogue, new stage directions, light cues, the whole thing. He said it was mine — he’d waive all rights to it!” Fortunately for fans of the play’s Off Broadway run, Shanley changed just one word for its move to Broadway (it opens March 31 at the Walter Kerr Theatre). Set in a Catholic school in the ’60s, Doubt stars the inestimable Cherry Jones as Sister Aloysius, a school principal who suspects a young priest (Brían F. O’Byrne) of molesting a male student. His 24th play, Doubt marks the acclaimed playwright’s Broadway debut. And with whispers of a Pulitzer Prize, Shanley, 54, may finally get to retire his prefix of 17 years: Oscar-winning screenwriter of Moonstruck.

Were you surprised by Doubt‘s euphoric reception?
Very! I was also surprised the critics got what I wasn’t saying. Very often I’ve done plays and I’d think the reviewers weren’t paying attention. Now I see I’ve been boring them all along!

Despite being presented as a parable, there is no moral conclusion or resolution to the play. We’re left debating the priest’s guilt.
People want comfort, you know? And at the same time, we’re sick of it, which is why I think people like the play. I’m not interested in morality. One of my larger premises in doing this play, in what’s not said, is that doubt itself is a passionate exercise. I think it’s perceived in this culture as something weak or denatured, and that’s a huge mistake. Conviction is what you do to be comfortable, to write The End on thinking. Doubt keeps you in the present, it keeps you conscious and reacting to and acting on what is going on now. It’s work, and people like to avoid work.

Is Sister Aloysius based on someone you knew?
A nun who was the principal of my school when I was 6. She’s the basis for the tone in which [Sister Aloysius] speaks. But there’s a lot of what I believe and think in her.

Her austerity is off-putting, even cruel, but I get the sense you love her.
Yes. I think a lot of people had a problem with her, but I really liked her because I felt she cared very deeply and even if it was wrong or incorrect, she followed through. That was a way of showing her love.

And yet, as a nun in the Catholic Church, she has to do it with virtually no power of her own. Her impotence is poignant.
The dilemma, as a forthright, forceful person who is not allowed to be direct, is how do you behave, how do you get done what needs to be done? It’s sort of the way women in the court of Louis XIV got things done — it was very oblique.

Some have suggested that Doubt is a criticism of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and its unconfirmed belief in weapons of mass destruction.
On some level, there’s a political point. But most political plays are about reconfirming your politics to you — which just bores me into insensibility — as opposed to putting it back on you. The theme should arise like smoke off a play. It shouldn’t be stated, or if it is, it should go by like just another line.