The search for religion and troubled relationships are two of the most-explored themes in dramatic storytelling, yet somehow Kate Fodor’s absorbing new drama, 100 Saints You Should Know, manages to cast a new angle at these subjects. Saints, directed by Ethan McSweeny, runs at Playwrights Horizons as part of a season dedicated to featuring up-and-coming playwrights.
Everyone in Saints is at a crossroads, with children making serious choices and adults still foundering. Theresa (Janel Moloney) is the single mother of an ungrateful teenage brat, Abby (Zoe Kazan). A wild teen herself who has become responsible in her thirties, Theresa works for a janitorial service, which has assigned her to clean the rectory of a nearby church on Saturdays. It is there that she encounters Matthew (Jeremy Shamos), a Roman Catholic priest later banished from the church when some offensive photos are found in his keep. Jeremy comes home to live with his mother, Colleen (the estimable Lois Smith), who knows something is amiss with her son but does not probe why. Smith is such a stalwart talent she effortlessly weaves in nuanced characterization through every thread of Fodor’s dialogue. One of the best early moments involves a game of Scrabble riddled with as many minefields as the conflict in the Gulf.
Though they have only met once, Theresa comes to deliver a book Jeremy left behind in the rectory. It’s clear that the delivery is a ruse for her to continue getting to know Jeremy, if not for relationship fulfillment, then certainly for spiritual satisfaction. She has let Abby wait for her in the car, where the troublemaking daughter meets fellow teen Garrett (Will Rogers). Alcohol blurs their already questionable judgment, and before long, an accident sends Garrett to the hospital and the other four characters to question their faith.
I take a bit of an exception to this plot contrivance. Why does Theresa need to drive over with Abby in tow, especially if she hopes to spend more than a few moments in Jeremy’s presence? Nonetheless, it lets Fodor create some fascinating ruminations on what the relationship between humans and God is supposed to be. A lot of this gets a little too talky, particularly Theresa’s explanatory monologues, but the playwright has a strong grip on the emotions beneath the surface, and Moloney, best-known for television’s The West Wing does an able job.
It’s the three largely unknown actors in Saints that leave the most lasting impressions, however. Kazan is a skilled actress who suggests at every turn that Abby is more than just a spoiled child, but has trouble learning from her mistakes. Rogers is a major find in the difficult role of Garrett, who is as mentally stunted as Abby is emotionally. And Shamos bridges the entire work together with his complicated role, full of guilt and regret and hope and longing. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Rachel Hauck’s simple revolving set also deserves mention, though I disagree with some of McSweeny’s transitional choices, which move set pieces too slow and use songs between songs, breaking up the action. Still, he elicits such wonderful performances that he can be forgiven. There are worse things than making Fodor’s probing journey last a little bit longer.