By Dan Hulbert
The Horizon Theatre has had its share of successes and stumbles
over 13 seasons. But it has never mounted, back-to-back, two productions
as terrifically entertaining - and dazzlingly different- as last
fall's The Food Chain and the current Racing
Food was the uproariously blasphemous dessert. Now we get the meaty entree in David Hare's Demon: an important play of ideas, a compassionate expose of the crisis in the Church of England.
But Demon isn't simply about that church any more than Angels in America was about Mormonism Hare's subject is change: its adventure and its pain. It's a subject so universal in the '90s that, since first enjoying Demon in New York in 1995 (and I enjoyed Horizon's production even more), I've had lively post-show talks with a Washington attorney and an Atlantan social worker who were astonished to see the office politics of their lives played out by the embattled Episcopal priests of Hare's riveting tale. (Hare seems to know the newspaper business too).
The principals are Lionel (Robin Hale), and aging priest in a declining London parish so swamped with helping his neighbors (including a domestic abuse victim played by Jen Harper) that his faith has slipped away. God why are you silent? he demands in one of the play's wrenching private prayers. Lionel's new curate is Tony (Brik Berkes), a go-getter as bursting with new ideas as Lionel is drained of them.
When Tony goes to the woman's house to recruit her for Christ, his zeal literally scares her back to her husband (the priest seizes her by the shoulders: a typically bold choice of Jeff Adler's superb direction). Tony fills pews, though; he gets the numbers up. He impresses the Bishop (Charlie Noel), whose dissatisfaction with Lionel has grown worse since he started playing squash with a powerful parishioner who hates Lionel's bleeding-heart sermons.
Meanwhile a sleazy journalist (Maurice Ralston) is preparing to expose Lionel's priest friend, Harry (Peter Thomasson) as a homosexual. The two priests must fight for their pulpits against what seems a nefarious, godless machine of power and money.
But nothing is as simple as it seems in Hares deftly balanced tale. There are no angels or demons in Demon. As in a Shaw play, you may be swayed by whoever's speaking, whether it's the angry Bishop or the driven Tony, who's compared to both Jesus and Judas (the script is often bitingly funny). Though his early works had a socialist mission, Hare in his later plays (Skylight, last fall's Broadway hit) see the world tragically split not along political lines but between those who act and move, those who think and feel. Both types must bond if humanity is to move forward.
One character never quite rings true: Frances (Ann Reynolds), an agnostic whose switch from Tony's lover to Lionel's ally works better as a metaphor than real behavior. The problem is minimized because Reynolds is so well nuanced and appealing. In fact, all the actors and designs (especially the hip, energizing sound of Dung Nguyen) are first-rate.
There are minor-role gems from Shari Garretson as Lionel's sorrowing wife, Frank Roberts as a waffling Bishop (or should we say middle manager?) and Christopher Paul as a priest who finishes all his friends' tequila sunrises and offers up the prayer It's so simple. So clear that He is there - in our happiness
This line is a thrilling window of light in a play so deeply shadowed with doubts/
It would be a tragic mistake for conservative Christians, or non-believers, or members of other faiths to assume that Racing Demon is not for them. It is for any intelligent person with a taste for a journey.