by Ron Cohen · August 19, 2015
Alex Katz, Gary Kozak | Joe DeBonis
Brian Kraker’s program bio tells us that Father Kennedy is his first play. So, I was suitably impressed when the opening scene of his play, getting its world premiere at FringeNYC, bounced along brightly with dialogue that seemed to come from the assured hand of an experienced practitioner of comedy writing.
The scene involves an off-hour conversation between two priests -- the man of the title and his younger colleague Father Kelly -- sitting in the adjoining compartments of a confessional. They are playing the game of Battleship, as they also gossip about the parishioners who come to confession, discuss the general business of priesthood, and debate the merits of an idea to set up condiment bars -- containing such items as ketchup, mustard and Nutella -- for dipping communion wafers as a way to increase attendance at mass. The talk -- sprinkled with un-priestlike four-letter words -- is funny and fresh and promises an inside, merrily unvarnished but not unsympathetic look at a calling, which has in recent years borne the brunt of a flood of bad PR.
The comedy level also stays high when Ramsey, the grave digger for the church cemetery, enters the scene for his weekly confession. He is a dull-witted hunk of a fellow, but amiable and hungry for spiritual guidance, and his list of sins covers a lengthy sheet of computer paper, which he confesses he stole from the church office. The list also includes such things as sexual dreams about a neighbor’s cat.
But then, unfortunately, the plot enters the picture. During his confessional, Ramsey reveals he has been having sex with Father Kennedy’s sister Rose and now they are planning to wed. The news sends Kennedy into conniptions, and after it’s verified by the arrival of Rose, the priest decides he must break up the engagement. He and Kelly decide that a piece of lingerie will be dropped into Ramsey’s apartment, making Rose think he has been unfaithful. And that will do the trick. That’s when I felt my credulity begin to strain, and it broke irreparably when Father Kennedy goes shopping for just that piece of lingerie, and is abruptly propositioned by a rather forward saleswoman.
Kraker also sends his plot though several more twists and turns, that seem more labored than zany. At the same time, he attempts to take a serious look at Father Kennedy’s state of mind as he questions his profession and his place in it. How did he become the gruff, sardonic uncaring priest who now has little more than contempt for his parishioners?. Also playing a role in his deliberations is Nancy, the church secretary, Kennedy’s friend from childhood and a woman who at one time rejected his marriage proposal because she believed his calling was the priesthood. Things become hyper-serious in two monologues in which Kennedy meditates on and questions the inscrutability of God.
These two aspects of the script -- the goofiness, mostly unfunny, and the metaphysical agonizing -- make for an uncomfortable dichotomy that’s never really resolved, despite the brisk staging of director Alex Katz and several commendable performances.
Gary Kozak invests his portrayal of Father Kennedy with both comedic frenzy, as he trips over his attempts to break up his sister’s engagement, and impressive emotional depth, as he talks to and about the Almighty. In addition to directing, Katz plays Father Kelly, making him an amusing airhead of a friend, who believes he’s headed for sainthood because of a dream in which he talked with God and was surrounded by a high-kicking chorus line of angels.
As the aggressive lingerie saleswoman, Simone Policano exudes a bubbly sexuality that almost -- but not quite -- overrides the implausibility of her role, while Alex Ashrafi projects a likeable innocence that makes the character’s bottomless boorishness quite entertaining. Completing the company are Ellany Kincross as a rather sober-faced Nancy, and Amber Bloom as a somewhat cartoon-like Rose.
After Father Kennedy had run through its 105 minutes or so of playing time, I still felt a tinge of disappointment that it had not lived up to its initial promise. However, that promise is strong enough that if and when Kraker’s second play hits the boards I won’t hesitate to see it.