‘Mass Appeal’ is being revived in Houston.
by Donalevan Maines
In Mass Appeal, Father Tim questions Roman Catholic seminary student Mark’s virginity by asking, “Have you ever seen ‘Paree’?” When there is silence, the priest follows with, “And if you have seen ‘Paree,’ were they ‘Parisiettes’ or Parisians?”
After a long pause, Mark replies, “Both.”
Father Tim is shocked. He asks, “Really?”
The audience was probably just as shocked when the two-hander by Bill C. Davis, now playing at A.D. Players in Houston, premiered April 22, 1980, at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Was that sound the clutching of pearls?
Adding to that original audience’s dismay was the casting of handsome matinee idol Eric Roberts as conflicted seminarian Mark Dolson. The future Oscar nominee had just turned 24 and still had a few years in the spotlight of Hollywood hunks before falling into the shadow of his sister Julia.
Now through November 16, Mass Appeal is being revived in Houston at A.D. Players, a Christian theater company whose artists insist on telling stories, and not using their stage as a pulpit for preaching.
Keeping with the original script, the playbill states, “The action takes places in Father Tim Farley’s office and in St. Francis Church. It is autumn.”
The theater’s decision not to identify what year the play takes place leaves open the door for audiences to consider the play’s current significance for the LGBT community, especially among gay men.
What prompts Father Tim to ask Mark about his sexual history is Mark’s “vehement defense” of two fellow seminary students, Frank and Alfred, whom the bishop thinks “hang out too much together.” Father Tim explains, “The bishop is so paranoid about this Frank and Alfred business, he wishes all the altar boys were girls.”
It’s as if gay men, rather than pedophiles, are the root of child sexual abuse involving priests. But don’t get me started. That battle rages on, from reports that gay men are being weeded out of seminaries to an Associated Press report in mid-October that the Vatican’s remarkable overture of “welcoming homosexuals” has been watered down to the colder “providing for homosexual persons.”
It’s probably impossible for an LGBT audience to divorce itself from the personal implications of Mark’s plight in Mass Appeal, but the play, at heart, is just as much about Father Tim’s struggle against complacency. It seems he’s gotten a little too comfortable at his parish and finds himself telling folks what they want to hear instead of what might nourish them.
Mass Appeal has been the biggest hit in the career of Davis, who more recently wrote about Catholicism in a play about gay marriage, called Avow.
The author adapted Mass Appeal into a 1984 film that starred Jack Lemmon as Father Tim and Zeljko Ivanek as Mark. Ivanek went on to come out, and he recently appeared in off-Broadway in a play, Slowgirl, penned by his partner, Greg Pierce, a nephew of out actor David Hyde Pierce. Greg Pierce also teamed with Cabaret’s John Kander (following the death of Kander’s lyricist Fred Ebb) to create The Landing, a musical that starred his famous uncle.
Milo O’Shea was nominated for a Tony Award as Father Tim after the play transferred to Broadway, with Michael O’Keefe (future husband of Bonnie Raitt) as Mark. The show’s director, Geraldine Fitzgerald, also scored a nomination.
When O’Shea died last year, the Los Angeles Times reported, “He made his Broadway debut opposite Eli Wallach in the 1968 play Staircase, said to be the American theater’s first effort to depict gay men in a serious way.”
Out actor Rupert Everett played Mark when Mass Appeal debuted in London.
When: Through November 16
Where: A.D. Players Theater, 2710 West Alabama
Info: adplayers.org, 713.526.2721.
Donalevan Maines also writes about Joey & Jaime in this issue of OutSmart magazine.