So how was the play?
I’ll get to that, I promise. But first, let me take a moment to celebrate the exceptional pool of talent we have here in Philadelphia. Eighteen years ago, when the Arden gave the world premiere of Michael Hollinger’s Incorruptible, the cast seemed pretty much perfect — and impossible to equal.
Damned if they haven’t done it. The team Arden has put together for this revival — Josh Carpenter, Michael Doherty, Alex Keiper, Mary Martello, Paul Nolan, Ian Merrill Peakes, Marcia Saunders and Sam Sherburne — are exceptionally skilled comedians, all going at it with brio. Simply on their own, they may be reason enough to enjoy the show.
But, of course, this is more than a collection of vaudeville turns. So again — how was the play?
That’s a more complicated question. Incorruptible, set in a medieval French monastery, is framed around a nearly unsolvable problem — how can the monks continue their good work of saving souls without any money? The larger issues Hollinger takes on — faith, poverty, ethics — are on a Shavian scale, though the play doesn’t always deliver on its ambition. Some of it is very funny. Some of it is creepy, grotesque and thought provoking. The best of it is all those things at once.
My point is that the tone is tricky. There’s no doubt that it often calls for very bold comic acting. But it would also benefit from something more grounded and complex.
It isn’t fully realized in the Arden’s current, handsomely designed production. Director Matt Decker has paced the play so fast that it’s not always possible to follow plot points (and there are a lot of them). Everything is amiable and generalized. I longed for a world that also included something secretive, shadowy, dark. (The dark part I mean literally — the Arden stage is always flooded with light, which looks nothing like a real monastery.)
The performances that truly stand out are the quieter ones, especially Carpenter as the sweetly credulous Brother Felix, and Peakes, whose dry wit really scores as Brother Martin. But in the key role of Jack, the local con artist, the talented Doherty goes too far into the world of shtick — he seems gripped by his own antic energy, rather than the master of it.
Incorruptible at the Arden is entertaining, but I think it could be more than that. To be fair, though, some of this problem is hard-wired in the script, particularly in the second act, where the abrupt shift from high farce into piety feels insincere — Hollinger wants to have his faith and eat it, too.
Through June 22, Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St., 215-922-1122, ardentheatre.org.