By Melissa Rose Bernardo
Updated December 03, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

EW reviews two John Patrick Shanley plays

John Patrick Shanley’s characters do everything big. They talk big, they love big, they screw up big. (Cher and Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck, anyone?) And so go Roberta and Danny, the combustible, combative pair at the (broken) heart of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, his 1984 hit getting a terrific Off Broadway revival. Under the spell of cheap beer, surrounded by smashed pretzels and self-pity, Roberta (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Danny (Adam Rothenberg) indulge in a perverse and mesmerizing mating ritual, clawing at each other, grasping for something to hold on to, or anything that will hold them together. They’re open, raw, and worlds away from Shanley’s latest creations, Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, the religious figures looming over the moral center of Doubt. A breathtaking work of immense proportion packed into a lean 90-minute stretch, Doubt takes a by-now-banal premise — a priest’s questionable relationship with a male student — and transforms it into something positively brilliant. The impossibly bossy Sister Aloysius (a divine Cherry Jones) — a woman who finds heretical implications in ”Frosty the Snowman” — has doubts about the doe-eyed Father Flynn (Brían F. O’Byrne, by turns commanding, vulnerable, and — holy Thorn Birds! — sexy). And ”doubt,” Shanley says, ”can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.” Our minds are poisoned the moment the self-righteous nun cocks an eyebrow in the padre’s direction — poisoned, yet also intrigued, and somewhat unsure. Shanley’s too shrewd a playwright to tell us what to think, even if, ultimately, what we think is that we don’t know. Is he guilty? Does it matter? Danny: B+ Doubt: A