MASS APPEAL had its origin early in 2008. Again, Joe was looking for a vehicle to work with his son, Travis, aiming for a summer run. And again, Midnight was looking for a simple play, with minimal cast, that might provide a twist in terms of appeal or possible playing space.
MASS APPEAL leapt from a page in the Dramatists Play Service catalogue. Joe remembered the movie (with Jack Lemmon), and immediately zeroed in on the seminarian role as a perfect one for Trav, and zeroed in on the draw this Catholic comedy/drama might have in St. Louis.
Larry Dell helped with an early read of the show as Father Farley, but a number of personal complications stalled the summer run, and the show was rescheduled for November.
And, fortunately, rescheduled in a fabulous space – Christ Church Cathedral, downtown in St. Louis, an 1860’s era Gothic Revival church, now on the list of National Historic Landmarks.
Steve Springmeyer (a veteran of numerous Midnight shows, and a colleague of Joe’s from previous productions with The New Theatre and the Orthwein) took on the role of Fr. Farley. Travis and Steve were a great team, working hard and working well together.
Audiences were impressed, even awed, by our space, and mostly delighted with the show. Reviews echoed the audience response, and overall, it was a very smooth run, and our decision to let the grandeur of the church speak for itself, with only minimal lighting and sound to complement it, was a wise one.
We avoided (or missed) one potential script controversy: the “villain” of the piece is a monsignor whose decisions drive the conflict. In the script, his name is Burke (the same as the controversial head of the St. Louis archdiocese at the time we decided to do the show.) I thought this could bring us some extra PR (and feared it could bring some heavy heat our way – I was around Theatre Project Company when they faced the wrath of the Catholics with their SISTER MARY IGNATIUS EXPLAINS IT ALL FOR YOU.)
But, unfortunately or not, the real Burke headed off to Rome before our run.)
Another interesting story that popped up during the run came from a Christ Church parishioner who told me she’d seen the movie as a teenager. She went to college in California, and while there, visited an Episcopalian church near Los Angeles. Stepping into the church, she felt a strong sense of déjà vu. She’d seen this church before. Eventually she realized it was the church used in the filming of the Jack Lemmon movie, and there were numerous shots of Lemmon in the lobby of the church. (By the way, she enjoyed our production, and emailed her positive review to her fellow parishioners.)
By Calvin Wilson
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Father Tim Farley (Steve Springmeyer) brings showbiz panache to the pulpit. Blessed with a well-heeled congregation, Farley is careful not to say anything that might stanch the flow of dollars to the collection plate. But he's quicker with a quip than the average stand-up comedian. If that means Farley is less concerned with the soul than with the sell, that's a compromise with which he's become comfortable.
Mark Dolson (Travis Hanrahan), a young seminarian, has a different philosophy. To him, the soul is what it's all about. Determined not to follow Farley down the path of condescension, Dolson dares to deliver sermons that challenge the status quo. But he also recognizes that his own faith is less than unshakable.
"Mass Appeal," by Bill C. Davis, is a comedy about spiritual redemption. The play was the basis for a 1984 film that starred Jack Lemmon as Farley and Zeljko Ivanek ("Homicide: Life on the Street") as Dolson.
Presented by the Midnight Company, "Mass Appeal" is old-fashioned in the best sense. Director Joe Hanrahan (father of Travis) makes room for topical references — including a nod to Sarah Palin — without spoiling the play's mood of playful rumination. Hanrahan does justice to Davis' droll humor without ignoring the play's more serious themes. And the cast of two is first rate.
Springmeyer imbues Farley with an intriguing blend of cockiness and melancholy. And as Dolson, the younger Hanrahan is the quintessential upstart.
Paradoxically, staging "Mass Appeal" in an actual church detracts from its theatricality — it's harder for the illusion to take hold, and for the play to generate the required intimacy. But it's easy to get lost in the sheer enthusiasm that Springmeyer and Hanrahan bring to their roles.
KDHX Music Review - Mass Appeal
Reviewed by Sarah Boslaugh
You couldn't ask for a better setting for Mass Appeal than Christ Church Cathedral. A National Historic Landmark designed in early English Gothic style, the Cathedral's soaring arches and magnificent altar screen are a physical embodiment of man's spiritual aspirations.
Aspiration versus compromise is the basic conflict in Mass Appeal, whose story concerns the efforts of Father Farley (played by Steve Springmeyer) to help the idealistic seminary student Mark Dolson (played by Travis Hanrahan) find his place within Catholicism.
Mark can be a real pain in the neck: he sincerely desires to become a priest, but in some idealized Church which lives up to his expectations. Father Farley, on the other hand, is popular with his affluent congregation, enjoys the respect of his peers, and is comfortable within the Church as it exists. And he understands and can communicate with ordinary people, a skill which entirely escapes Mark.
Mark's conflicts with the Church are not specific to religion: they exist in any powerful institution which wishes to perpetuate itself, yet can become stagnant if it completely excludes critics. When he's not entirely exasperated with Mark, Father Farley values his honesty and refusal to compromise, calling him a "priceless lunatic" who can "make the Church alive."
Although Mass Appeal premiered at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1980, chances are it will still seem contemporary in 2080. It starts a bit slowly: despite updated lines about Sarah Palin and Blackberries, the prospect of religious services as comforting entertainment is old hat by now. But once the two characters start locking horns on issues like idealism versus compromise, and open up about their personal lives, all limitations of time and space drop away.
Joe Hanrahan's direction brings out both the humor and the serious issues in Bill C. Davis's script. Steve Springmeyer shows us the conflicts within Father Farley, content in his comfortable life until Mark's example reminds him of the compromises he's made to achieve it. Travis Hanrahan captures Mark's intensity as well as his remarkable naivete: seeming to live every moment as if his hair were on fire, Mark's so dedicated to his ideals that he can't see that he's destroying any chance of realizing them.
The Midnight Company production makes excellent use of the Cathedral setting. A few risers in front of the sanctuary create Father Farley's office, and sermons are delivered from a real pulpit, to an audience sitting in pews. Lighting and sound signal changes in location and bring the Cathedral as a whole in and out of the acting space, underscoring the point that the Church at its best is more than just another bureaucratic institution.
Mass Appeal The ornate sanctuary of Christ Church Cathedral downtown provides a resplendent environment for Bill C. Davis' amiable tale about the uneasy bonding between an impassioned young seminarian and the sedentary parish priest who has been assigned to teach him discipline. The intensive sincerity of Travis Hanrahan's firebrand is well matched by the comfortable-slipper ease of Steve Springmeyer's tradition-bound priest. Although the Catholic Church has been rocked by controversy in the 28 years since this play was first staged, the text retains a simple freshness that doesn't feel at all dated. To see it staged in such a magnificent locale elevates an entertaining evening into something unique.
Mass Appeal The Midnight Company
Written by Laura Hamlett
Once again, The Midnight Company has brought a compelling and well-produced play to St. Louis. This time it's Mass Appeal, the tale of two sides of Catholicism—Fr. Tim Farley (Steve Springmeyer), a status-quo priest, and seminarian Mark Dolson (Travis Hanrahan), intent on shaking things up.
The play begins with what Fr. Farley terms a "dialogue sermon," a question-and-answer presentation during Sunday mass. Dolson speaks up, asking provocative questions and insisting on answers as the priest tries to sidestep the questions. We soon learn that Dolson, with his radical ideas and refusal to accept the complacency of the church, is on thin ice at the seminary, and he is assigned to Fr. Farley for what is believed to be much-needed guidance.
The elder relates such lessons as, "Sermons should be understood. Proper grammar doesn't necessarily help with understanding." When confronted about his vanilla sermons, he admits, "I like being liked; it gives me a warm feeling. That and wine are the only warm feelings I have."
Deacon Dolson, on the other hand, staunchly maintains his idealistic point of view. "I don't like song-and-dance theology," he tells Fr. Farley. In response to the priest's advice of "Don't kick ass," Dolson retorts, "Better that than to kiss it." Later, Fr. Farley advises, "If you can afford not to become a priest, tell the truth. If you want to become a priest, lie."
Rather than merely impart wisdom and structure to the young scholar, Fr. Farley ends up learning from and eventually embracing Dolson's youthful ideals. Even as the assignment dissolves into what the Monsignor deems failure and priest and student find their paths diverging, there is evidence that the two continue to be influenced by one another.
Springmeyer is absolutely spot on as Fr. Farley. An alumnus of The Midnight Company (he appeared previously in Life After Death, Love Match, Soldier Boy and The Little Frenchy Files), he continues to impress with his ability to assume a character and present it fully and believably. A definite talent, Travis Hanrahan is a little less impressive, if only because he seems to approach each character the same in each of his appearances.
As the play is set in a church, set design is nonexistent; Joe Hanrahan's direction ensures that everything runs smoothly and believably.
by Mark Bretz
Story: Father Tim Farley is the well-liked pastor of an affluent, suburban Catholic parish. He tends to his flock with benevolence, delivering the social and spiritual messages of the gospels with large dollops of sugar for his comfortable community.
That cozy world is unexpectedly challenged one Sunday when a brash seminarian named Mark Dolson abruptly appears during Fr. Farley’s sermon and demands to know why women cannot be ordained in the church. While Fr. Farley initially recoils at the young man’s brusque demeanor, he also is intrigued with his genuine fervor. He asks his friend, the monsignor who presides over the seminary, for permission to take the controversial young deacon under his wing to tutor and save him from the threat of expulsion by the orthodox monsignor. When pragmatism meets idealism, what will be the ultimate outcome?
Highlights: A two-act play written by Bill C. Davis in 1981, Mass Appeal has enjoyed success, first Off-Broadway, then on Broadway and later in a 1984 movie adaptation, showcasing the talents of such noted actors as Milo O’Shea, Eric Roberts, Brian Keith, Jack Lemmon, John Travolta and Zeljko Ivanek. It’s easy to understand why, as the two-character drama offers plenty of conflict and confrontation to counterbalance its philosophical and intellectual core.
The current production being staged by Midnight Company is set appealingly near the altar in the impressive Christ Church Cathedral. The presence of stained glass windows and looming arches carries sufficient gravitas to help convey the themes of theology and social activism inherent in the work, and director Joe Hanrahan uses the locale shrewdly in shaping this effective presentation. Hanrahan’s staging is effective as well, keeping the two players at a physical, restrained distance for much of the performance to emphasize the emotional gulf between them.
Other Info: Although there are coy references to Sarah Palin and Monsignor “Burke,” the core of this drama is the meeting of two powerful minds, and Hanrahan’s two actors nicely convey this conflict. Steve Springmeyer capably depicts the congeniality and camaraderie of the older priest, who enjoys his wine perhaps a bit too much and prefers to shepherd his flock with gentle and subtle encouragement. Springmeyer also conveys the older priest’s genuine interest and concern for the firebrand seminarian, and shines in the show’s best moment, a reverse role-playing venture about how to suitably counsel troubled parishioners.
As the seminarian, Travis Hanrahan effectively demonstrates the passion for change and social justice felt by the idealistic student, although his voice is at first too shrill and annoying. Overall, though, he brings a poignant interpretation to the role, that underscores his character’s youth and vulnerability.
Mass Appeal is a quiet but compelling work that convincingly juxtaposes two polar approaches to a common goal, albeit with an unsurprising conclusion.
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Revised: October, 2007
© The Midnight Company