Merle Good’s “The Preacher and the Shrink” Tackles Sexual Abuse, Heresy at Beckett Theater
Apparently, many critics found playwright Merle Good’s Off-Broadway debut “The Preacher and the Shrink,” playing at Theater Row’s Beckett Theater through January 4th, to be morally offensive. Centered around the risky premise that a woman’s accusation of sexual abuse may in fact have been a ploy to get revenge on her father, it’s not difficult to see why the play went over badly in New York City, the world capital of political correctness.
Regardless of what you make of the play’s controversial subject matter, “The Preacher and the Shrink” is undeniably offensive in other ways. For one, it is offensive to the audience, who must endure two endless hours of ham-fisted dialogue, pedestrian staging, and blatant clichés. It is offensive to the show’s skilled actors, forced to try and turn mind-numbingly awful material into something bearable. They fail miserably, but then, so would any actor.
“The Preacher and the Shrink” bears all the hallmarks of pretentious Off-Broadway theater and none of its good qualities. On its face, the narrative is intriguing enough. A rebellious and immature young poetry professor, Constance Hunter, portrayed by a competent, yet woefully-miscast Adria Vitlar, returns to her hometown in Pennsylvania, ostensibly to reconcile with her father, Dr. Michael Hamilton (Tom Galantich), the senior pastor of the local church. However, we soon learn that Constance has really returned to blackmail her emotionally distant father with an accusation of sexual abuse at the hands of none other than his beloved junior pastor, David Wheeler (Mat Hostetler).
Constance feels that, following the death of her mother, Michael withdrew into himself and developed a secret hatred for God. These transgressions may seem relatively harmless, but to Constance, they take precedence over her abuse, which she employs as a weapon against her father. David accuses Constance of fabricating the whole tale, although he forfeits much credibility by changing his recollection of events every time he recounts it. Michael can’t decide whom to trust, struggling to find his way out of an impossible dilemma even as he squanders the audiences’ sympathy by acting like an all-around insensitive shit.
Hope arrives in the form of unprofessional and bereft-of-insight therapist, Dr. Alexandra Bloomfield (Dee Hoty), who listens to the play’s main protagonists bitch about their lives in the most banal manner possible. Good half-heartedly shoehorns in a childhood romance between Michael and Alexandra to give some “depth” to Alexandra, who mostly exists as an empty receptacle for the other characters to deliver self-important monologues. Nicholas Urda boasts the even-less-important role of non-entity Steve Richardson, who surfaces sporadically to thank Michael for praying for his leukemia-stricken son. What Good hopes to achieve with this vestigial character is anybody’s guess. Perhaps he is present to highlight the hypocrisy of Michael offering prayers for a bereaved father despite his hatred of God, but his presence does not contribute anything that Good has not already pounded into our brain with one of his substance-free monologues.
Good fails to build up or maintain any dramatic tension over the course of the play. The characters are extremely inconsistent, their personalities inexplicably morphing from one scene to the next to indulge the playwright’s sermons on the play’s superficial coterie of themes. To make matters worse, the characters are, without exception, grating and despicable. This would be fine if they offered any insights or emotional complexity, but as things stand, the the actors are stuck with the unenviable task of manufacturing emotional coherence where none exists.
“The Preacher and the Shrink” only grows worse over the course of two hours. Without any convincing way to resolve his meandering narrative, Good resorts to the most disgusting cliché of all, one that seems even more out-of-nowhere and unconvincing than the chain of implausible developments preceding it. It is the worst attempt at emotional manipulation, cheapening the entire play and insulting the intelligence of the audience, who have already weathered its tediousness. Suffice to say, the twist fails miserably; the audience literally wound up laughing at an event that was clearly intended to come across as tragic.
Occurring shortly before the play’s conclusion, the playwright does not even have the wherewithal to address its ramifications in anything but a cursory fashion. The climax of the play is neither earned nor plausible, and no audience member with the least bit of discernment can help feeling a sense of enormous relief when the poor actors emerge to take their bows. Off-Broadway theater rarely gets worse than this.