There are some strong performances in How to Write a New Book for the Bible

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      By Bill Cain. Directed by Morris Ertman. A Pacific Theatre production. At Pacific Theatre on Friday, April 26. Continues until May 25

      A Jesuit priest as well as a playwright, Bill Cain can’t resist telling us what to think.

      In his autobiographical script, How to Write a New Book for the Bible, the central character, Bill Cain, leads us through the death of his mother, Mary. Rather than trusting us to draw our own conclusions about the play’s unfolding events and relationships, Bill addresses the audience directly—and preaches. “All writing is a prayer,” he intones. “We are mysteries to ourselves and one another,” he notes. Apparently assuming that we’re going to thank him for this, he adds, humbly, that being a writer is “a way of life. You notice things. You point them out.”

      How to Write a New Book for the Bible would be much more engaging if Cain pointed out fewer things and underlined them less thoroughly. It would also be better if he told a more coherent story. Act 1 mostly looks at Bill’s combative relationship with Mary. Bill’s dead dad, Pete, lurks in the background, and so does Bill’s all-American big brother, Paul. Then, without much preparation, Paul takes over. In a flashback, he serves in the Vietnam War, which traumatizes him, then he visits artist Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., so that he can have a quick, explanatory catharsis—and so that the act can end on an emotional note.

      Act 2, which gets down to the nitty-gritty of death, is more focused, but Cain tacks on an ending that imagines the afterlife as the emotional equivalent of a box of chocolates.
      I have no doubt that Cain loves his family, but his emphasis on sentimentality, easy entertainment, and philosophical quick fixes yields far more chicken soup than I can swallow.

      Fortunately, there are some strong performances in director Morris Ertman’s production. Erla Faye Forsyth, who seems to have been playing old women since she was in her 20s, unapologetically inhabits Mary’s toughness, which, of course makes Mary’s playfulness more charming and her vulnerability more touching. For his part, Anthony F. Ingram, who plays Bill, is unafraid of his character’s petty selfishness. And Ingram brings an active intelligence to the stage that’s always a pleasure to watch.

      As big brother Paul, Daniel Arnold plays anger on just a couple of notes for too long but, when Paul cracks at the Vietnam Memorial, the transparency and detail of Arnold’s performance make the passage genuinely moving. Byron Noble provides a steady presence as Pete and a number of other characters.

      Still, if I wanted a sermon, I’d go to church.



      J. Fung

      Jun 1, 2013 at 1:54pm

      This is a late comment because I saw the play two weeks ago but was only alerted to this review this morning (by my fiancée who went with me that night). I didn't think the play was preachy at all and I'm certainly no fan of getting preached at by Catholics. A playwright doesn't have to be even-handed (read: a playwright doesn't have to echo YOUR views) anyway. Colin Thomas here is guilty of not paying enough attention to the script (which to be honest wasn't spectacular) and being shut off to the possibility that it might not have been representing the writer's point of view at all. I could be wrong there, though you'd have thought that the basic dramatic irony was pretty obvious. Even if you yourself write a play with a main character who has your name and is played on stage by you it doesn't necessarily mean that the writer has a mouthpiece for indoctrinating the audience with his own views. On the other hand I don't go to the theatre to watch people agreeing with me for a couple of hours. So the writer's a priest -- so what? You honestly couldn't tell from watching the play. Colin Thomas thinks he was being preached at purely because the writer wears a collar during his day job. That's somewhere between ungenerous and simply paranoid. Anyway the play's been closed for a week and I'd have maybe given it 3 1/2 stars out of 5. Still I think it's worth setting the record straight here. "Bill Cain can't resist telling us what to think": let him who is without sin cast the first stone.