'Doubt' review — Amy Ryan and Liev Schreiber dance with their devils

Read our review of Doubt on Broadway, the first revival of the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play by John Patrick Shanley at the Todd Haimes Theatre.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

In the church of American theatre, it's practically dogma that John Patrick Shanley's Doubt is excellent. The Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play tackles thorny issues of morality, abuse, gender inequality, and progressivism in just over the length of a Catholic Mass. That may seem like too much for one 90-minute show to unpack, but that's the point: As with religion itself, you're meant to come away with more mysteries than answers.

The show, now in its first Broadway revival at the Todd Haimes Theatre, revolves around intimidating, conservative school principal Sister Aloysius (an indomitable Amy Ryan). She suspects well-liked, progressive Father Flynn (a standout Liev Schreiber) of abusing a student and will stop at nothing to personally bring him down.

Though it sounds like a black-and-white issue on paper (and it is, in a sense — the potential victim is the school's first Black student), it's anything but. Doubt complicates with the arrival of Mrs. Muller (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), the mother of the student, who reveals Flynn is the only kind male figure in his life — and she's therefore willing to turn a blind eye to improper conduct.

And regardless of whether Flynn is innocent, the question arises: Is his and Aloysius's power struggle about something more? Conservatism vs. progressivism is one answer, and another that particularly emerges in this production is gender roles in the church.

Aloysius has no faith in her male superiors to back her, only Sister James (Zoe Kazan), a young and reluctant confidant. Ryan, young-faced herself, puts on a noticeable vocal affect throughout — one, perhaps, her character developed to command authority in her field. Schreiber counters with an impenetrable performance as Flynn, who's cool-headed as he deflects Aloysius's attacks and condescends to her tone. One wonders whether he's guilty or just (by today's standards) misogynistic.

Shanley and director Scott Ellis are smart enough not to sway us with their words or their staging. I expect I could return to this production and end up with entirely different certainties and uncertainties. I might do just that.

Doubt summary

The play's full title is Doubt: A Parable, in reference to the stories Jesus told his disciples to teach moral lessons in Biblical tradition. Shanley, though, isn't teaching morality here, but testing its boundaries. Every character is in the moral gray. The doubt of the title isn't just about whether Flynn committed sexual abuse, but whether any character's wrongs are forgivable in the pursuit of a greater good, whether they're seeking a greater good at all, or what good is greater than others. As the characters grapple with these questions themselves, they end up with yet another doubt: a crisis of faith itself.

The play is tied to two pivotal periods in Catholic Church history when many such crises happened. Doubt is set in 1964 during the Second Vatican Council, a meeting of Catholic leadership that resulted in numerous changes meant to make the Church more accessible to the public. Shanley premiered his play in 2004, two short years after the Boston Globe published its groundbreaking exposé of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston area. Numerous similar reports followed across the U.S. and the world.

What to expect at Doubt

There are no depictions or detailed descriptions of sexual abuse in Doubt; in fact, the characters almost never name the issue directly. The idea of abuse is a fog that envelops the play, an unspoken understanding of its weight implied in every word. Nonetheless, those sensitive to issues of sexual and child abuse may have some difficulty with Doubt.

Those who do join the congregation can expect to find yourselves forming opinions of these characters, perhaps very strong ones bordering on certainty — not unlike Sister Aloysius. And then you'll see a twitch on Schreiber's face or hear the next line or note a reaction from the person sitting next to you, and the doubt will come right back.

What audiences are saying about Doubt

Audiences have positively responded to Doubt thus far; the show had an 89% approval rating on Show-Score at the time of publication. This response aligns with the show's 2005 Broadway premiere, when the play received widespread critical and audience acclaim and multiple awards.

  • "See it if you like short, powerful dramas that ask tough questions--and then leave it up to you to answer them." - Show-Score user stuontheaisle
  • "Blunt yet subtle, the story is full of nuances & empathy for all sides; therefore, we leave the venue with questions: - Did anything happen?? -Does the drama lean on the priest's behavior or instead on the parable & how most of us doubt faith/religion at pivotal moments?" - Show-Score user Elisa 9119
  • "My favorite scene might be the conversation between Aloysius & Mrs. Muller -- an uncompromising woman meeting one who, due to racial identity & life circumstance, perceives such certainty as a privilege." - Show-Score user gostak
  • "Don't see it if you want something cutting edge. This shows its age a bit and would probably hit harder in a smaller venue." - Show-Score user ArnoldNeild
  • "I saw the show with [Amy Ryan's understudy] Isabel Keating and she gave such a powerful and commanding performance." - Show-Score user Birdie123

Read more audience reviews of Doubt on Show-Score.

Who should see Doubt

  • Any playgoer should see Doubt. It's not just a modern theatrical classic — it's one that remains every bit as gripping, timely, and well-acted as ever in director Scott Ellis's revival.
  • Fans of recent Off-Broadway shows like Covenant and Your Own Personal Exegesis (both excellent) might enjoy Doubt, a kind of predecessor. They all have an ever-rich theme in common: the sacred and the profane.

Learn more about Doubt off Broadway

Doubt's many complexities continue to swirl in my mind days after I attended the show. One thing of which I have no doubt, though, is that Doubt delivers a riveting, well-acted, and utterly unmissable night at the theatre.

Learn more and get Doubt tickets on New York Theatre Guide. Doubt is at the Todd Haimes Theatre through April 21.

Additional Doubt content

Photo credit: Amy Ryan, Zoe Kazan, and Liev Schreiber in Doubt. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Originally published on

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