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‘Avow’ Sitcom-level humor mars shallow play about gays and church


Playwright Bill C. Davis couldn’t get away from the issue of same-sex marriages. Everywhere he looked the issue “kept popping up,” he said. People were “grappling” with it, and the church was challenged by it. Having brought the Catholic church on stage successfully in the 1980s in “Mass Appeal,” Davis decided to tackle the controversy in dramatic form, again giving the church a starring role.

The result is “Avow.” In this play’s overlapping plots, Tom and Brian, a couple who have been together for three years, want to get married by a Roman Catholic priest, Father Raymond, and adopt the baby of Brian’s pregnant, unmarried sister, Irene. After Father Raymond refuses to marry them, Irene goes to him to plead their case, and the two fall in love almost instantly. Now while two people want to make their vows, one ponders breaking his.

Davis is right that church-sanctioned gay marriage is a timely subject for dramatic presentation. Too bad that in “Avow,” which recently finished an Off-Broadway run in New York, he doesn’t give it the seriousness it deserves. Great points can be made through comedy, but not on the sitcom level of this play. Much of the humor is directed at the Catholic church, but nowhere is the church’s transcendent power recognized. I couldn’t see why Tom and Brian wanted to belong to the church as it’s portrayed, not to mention get married into it.

Davis defends the humor. “I don’t think it’s glib,” he said during a telephone interview from his Connecticut home. “People are laughing at what they recognize as truthful, what they comprehend.”

That actually is my major concern. The audience loved it the night I was there. The anti-Catholic humor, most of which is espoused by Irene, drew big laughs. Irene hasn’t been to church in years and can’t understand why Brian and Tom want anything to do with it. Forget the church, she tells them, using a different word beginning with F. She plays into the narrow views of people who are all too ready to bash the Catholic church, which seems to be the subject of more ridicule than any other religion. I doubt the laughter was coming from people who comprehend. I suspect it was from people like Irene who also haven’t been to church in years. And it’s not as if Catholics are the only holdouts against same-sex unions.

Davis says the church brings up “real rage, disdain” in many people. “A play falls short if it doesn’t bring a character like that front and center. A good chunk of the audience identifies with her.”

So it seemed, but for me, a little of Irene, with her comments like, “You think with your Baltimore Catechism between your legs,” goes a long way.

The most unrealistic character is Father Raymond. He is so lacking in emotion, at least in his initial response to Tom and Brian. The pair turn to the 42-year-old priest because they agree with his “radical” sermons in favor of women priests and against boxing and capital punishment, and because he loves Thomas Merton. But he shows no compassion to this couple he has known for years, talking only of the importance of obedience: “The church tells me, and you, that a man and a woman are physical expressions of spiritual forces in this world. The sacrament of matrimony is for a man and a woman. Any kind of sexual expression outside of the sacrament of matrimony only satisfies narcissistic needs.”

He tells them the church may be calling them to something they may not want to be. “Straight?” Tom asks. “Celibate,” he replies.

Later the priest tells Irene: “The problem is that every spoiled brat who has a whim wants it sanctioned by the institutions that have been created to keep some semblance of moral order.”

Father Raymond is the main voice for the church in this play, which is why the church seems so shallow. Davis says the audience needs to “take it on faith” that Brian and Tom care about the church. I disagree. Dramatic conflict could be increased if the powerful draw of the church were clear, if we could see Brian and Tom’s love for the church and their pain at being excluded.

Father Raymond’s words do strike a chord in Tom. “Why are you so positive that what the 2,000-year-old church says, what practically every religion in the world says, is such a big lie?” the priest asks. Tom moves out to consider a celibate life.

The celibacy is short-lived. After he’s bitten by a rabid dog, Tom sees it as a confirmation that he belongs with Brian. “To me the collie was the jaws of God coming at me.”

Which is good news to Brian. “That’s my kind of theology. The gospel according to Lassie.”

Father Raymond also is ready to see things in a new light, supposedly softened by his feelings for Irene. He announces Tom’s and Brian’s banns from the pulpit. (Does any parish still announce banns?) He is promptly sent away, but it doesn’t matter. In the final scene Brian and Tom are a happy couple again, cooing over Irene’s baby. They exchange vows alone, in the privacy of their bedroom, seeming perfectly satisfied with this nonsacramental union.

It’s been 20 years since “Mass Appeal” was a stage hit for Davis -- later made into a movie starring Jack Lemmon. In that play, an older, status quo priest has his ministry challenged by a radical young seminarian assigned to his parish.

“Avow” comes closest to the entertainment value of “Mass Appeal” with the character of Rose, played to comic excellence by showbiz veteran Jane Powell. As the mother of Brian and Irene, she is always trying to understand her “beautiful, complicated children” and how the church expects her to respond to them. She pours out her confusion to Father Nash, an older priest. “I found myself lighting candles that Tom would come back to Brian,” she says in one of her frequent visits to Father Nash’s confessional. “Now that is completely the wrong use of those candles. Yes, I can’t bear to see my son so unhappy, but how can I light candles in a church that doesn’t want the two people together that I shouldn’t, but do, want together? I’m surprised the wick even took the flame.”

Unfortunately Powell’s genuinely funny scenes are not enough to save “Avow.” If Davis wants to bring the church into his play, which now may move on to regional theaters or other New York venues, he’s got to give it more dimension. Unless it’s seriously rewritten, my advice is to rent “Mass Appeal” and stay home.

Retta Blaney, an arts and religion writer in New York, is founder of Broadway Blessing, an interfaith service that brings the theatre community together every September to ask God’s blessing on the new season.

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2000