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Mass Appeal Shows Contentment and a Full Collection Plate May Not Be Enough

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The set-up: What an apt title playwright Bill C. Davis gives his gentle two-character drama. Although set in a posh Roman Catholic parish where Father Tim Farley is the beloved priest, Mass Appeal (1980) could just as easily be set at the local Wendy's or some plumbing supply company. The message Davis preaches of basic human kindness could apply anywhere.

The execution: Father Farley (Ric Hodgin, twinkling as usual) is complacent and not about to make waves. For ten years, he's had a comfortable existence at St. Francis Church. He drives a Mercedes, the collection plate is always filled after his sermons - a sure sign of success, like the Nielsen ratings, he says with satisfaction - and he receives presents from his distinguished parishioners, like bottles of sparkling burgundy, which he consumes with increasing frequency. If he keeps his herd at a respectable distance, coddling them with harmless little lies and sweet compliments, who gets hurt? Like the proverbial fatted calf, he is quite content.

Guess what happens next? Before you can say Hail, Mary, young firebrand seminary student Mark (Braden Hunt, twinkling like a Haight-Ashbury dropout) disrupts Farley's staid life. Full of life and compassion, brimming with indignation and audacity, this idealist desperately wants to be a priest. Although we don't know it yet, Farley sees echoes of his own former dreamer in this edgy youth. Naturally, the older man is put in charge of the apprentice, teaching him important life lessons on the road to deaconship. Do I need add that the young man will instruct the master?

While we know where this play is headed, Davis adds enough small touches and felicitous detours to keep the journey fresh and revealing. Sprinkled throughout are personal revelations from both men, affixing just enough information to keep us guessing what will happen next. The genre's road map might be rumpled and well-used, but the final destination, though familiar, is lovingly detailed. With these two pros leading the way, we happily go along for the ride. It's high praise indeed that never once do we ask, are we there yet?

At his disposal, Hodgin uses a career's worth of wily craftsmanship to delineate Farley. He doesn't have to do much to show his character's desperation or panic at being exposed by this young man. He can slump in a chair with the best of them, give a throwaway side glance that says everything, or fumble through a sheaf of papers as if handling holy writ. Less is more with Hodgin, and it's impossible not to like Farley, faults and all. There is decency in him, and when he rises to the challenge of defying church authority, he has the weight of Martin Luther nailing his theses to the doors of Wittenberg Cathedral.

Hunt is younger, naturally, but he matches the veteran with surprising stage wiles of his own, not least a charismatic presence enhanced by his angelic halo of black curls and deft athleticism. Mark is supposed to be distance runner, and Hunt looks every inch of it. He has a Disciple's aura about him, a determination and singleness of purpose that will not be swayed. When Farley seeks a time to meet for lessons, Mark lists his extensive charity work. Farley snidely asks, "What, no leper colony?" We laugh because we're sure that if there were one anywhere within a 20-mile radius, Mark would work there. These two actors play off each other with appealing finesse and theatrical savvy.

As is the norm at A.D. Players, the production is crispy detailed through designer Mark A. Lewis's bifurcated set of office and pulpit, with lighting to match; costumer Patty Tuel Bailey's sacramental cassocks vs. Mark's gym gear; and sound designer Zach Varela's ethereal chimes and echoing church coughs. (Those coughs are instrumental to the story, but you'll have to see the play to understand their significance.) Although the blackouts between scenes could be tightened, director Joey Watkins keeps the pace within scenes taut and varied, and wisely stands back and lets these two pros do their thing.

The verdict: Much like Levi's Jewish rye bread, you don't have to be Catholic to like Mass Appeal. A nice love of theater is all that's needed.

Mass Appeal continues through November 16. at A.D. Players, 2710 W. Alabama. Purchase tickets online at adplayers.org or call 713-526-2721. $42.

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