Stage

Shows Of The Year

1 JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY'S Doubt, A Parable (Off Broadway) The title announces a Big Idea, which usually means a lot of grave, speech-y edification with the texture of newsprint. But Shanley's superbly multichambered Doubt — which takes sex abuse in the priesthood as its jumping-off point (!), then proceeds to pry apart our entire culture of righteousness — is a full-immersion baptism, heart and head, blood and spirit, where the characters, not the author, do the heavy lifting. It's 1964: Great changes are rattling church, nation, and world, as a by-the-book Bronx nun (Cherry Jones) bends the rules to investigate a progressive young priest (the powerfully troubled and troubling Brian F. O'Byrne, fresh off his Tony-winning turn as a child killer in Frozen) who's taken an interest in an isolated young boy. The man's charm may mask some malignancy, betoken a unique magnanimity...or both. Without ever allowing a character to invest him- or herself in a single uncontaminated principle, Shanley, his actors, and director Doug Hughes pull off provocative reversals without a single false-bottomed contrivance. To say that Doubt speaks to our times is to diminish its ecumenical impact and import: It's pure moral reasoning transmuted into suspense, with Jones' Sister Aloysius an especially intriguing creation — an avenging granite angel who'd venture even to hell for a rectitude she can intuit, but never guarantee.

2 Bug (Off Broadway) Anyone who says the stage thriller is dead hasn't seen Bug, the theatrical equivalent of a grade-A B movie. Wonderfully paranoid and truck-stop pungent, Tracy (Killer Joe) Letts' motel-room pressure cooker takes unexpected turns that test your grip on the armrests. Much credit is due to original stars Shannon Cochran and Michael Shannon, both feverishly good at selling a fast, contaminated love affair rotting from the inside out.

3 Sight Unseen (Broadway) In art, love, and the market, there are winners and losers. Donald Margulies (Dinner With Friends) forced one of each — an emotionally furtive Jewish painter-turned-art-trepreneur, Jonathan (Ben Shenkman), and his long-jilted, now-wilted shiksa ex, Patricia (a searing Laura Linney) — to settle up, with results as bracing as a damp winter wind. (Byron Jennings, as Patricia's current partner, provided relief with burning shots of uncut British disgust.) Watching the congenitally pitiless Jonathan break Patricia, Sight became more than a yuppified rape-of-the-muse story: It was a disturbingly ambiguous tale of unanswerable inequities, where wounds themselves wound.

4 Rose Rage (Off Broadway) Henry VI, all three sprawling parts of it, is an oddity, a vast Shakespearean saga with no inner life whatsoever. If, after four hours — yes, four hours — you find yourself on your feet, wishing for four more, you can be sure something extraordinary has happened. Barely contained in a rust-bitten slaughterhouse playpen, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater made an exhilarating if criminally short run last fall, lancing fat plastic bagfuls of glistening innards and spattering heads of red cabbage to convey (and, most transgressively, glory in) the berserker churn of politics and civil strife. ''Butchers and villains!'' cried one victor/victim. ''Bloody cannibals!'' Mmm, yes. Delicious.

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