In certain strains of Catholicism, “incorruptibility” is the term used to describe a body that shows only slight decay long after death. This phenomenon has been interpreted by the devout as a sign of the deceased’s pureness of faith in life, and up until the 20th century was a factor in the process of beatification. Stripped of its religious connotations, the word simply refers to the quality of one whom neither money nor fame can persuade to abandon a higher purpose.
Both of these meanings are at play in Michael Hollinger’s 1996 play Incorruptible, a farce that centers on a centuries-old ethical dilemma: Should wrongdoing ever be used to further the cause of the good?
That question is teased out here (c. 1250 AD) by a group of monks desperate to save their crumbling monastery. They come to the reluctant conclusion that if they’re to continue to succor the less fortunate, they’ll have to resort to underhanded tactics — for instance, exhuming graveyard corpses and selling their bones as saintly relics. They establish such a brisk trade that at one point their ledgers show they’ve shipped 17 heads of John the Baptist.
Although this success is welcomed by cynical Brother Martin (Jeff Bryan), the abbot (Jerry Sciarrio, fresh from his uncanny embodiment of Max Bialystock in the Civic’s Producers) is ambivalent but even more determined to show up the ruthless abbess of nearby Bernay (Jone Campbell Bryan). Brother Olf (Jeffrey Sanders) is too dim a bulb to realize exactly what’s going on, and naive, retiring Brother Felix (James Pendleton) is growing uneasy with the state of affairs.
At the same time, the one-eyed minstrel-turned-swindler-turned-monk, Jack (Christopher Rounville), is on the verge of a revelation, and his kinda-sorta wife (Sofie Spilman) is having her own change of heart. She’s looking to quit the prostitution racket and take up domestic life.
Like Hollinger’s Opus, a drama staged by Interplayers last year, Incorruptible is an ensemble piece. That means no single actor is responsible for the sense of propulsion or the mood; the burden is evenly distributed among everyone on stage. It’s a delicate equilibrium, and the most common hazards are a palpable unevenness or a situation in which the various roles blur into one.
Interplayers avoided the blur but were hit-and-miss when it came to balance. Not unforgivably so, but Pendleton’s and Rounville’s characters tended to be spongy and insubstantial where the others were solid and distinct. Part of this came down to simple enunciation. When so much of the play hinges on Felix’s loss of faith and Jack’s discovery of it, those characters have to be reliable linchpins, particularly in the way they deliver their epiphanies. Hollinger’s scramble to close Incorruptible with an air of profundity doesn’t help matters, either.
Patrick Treadway’s direction checks all the right boxes (one-liners are highlighted, awkward moments taken in stride), and the set and lighting by Jason Hofland, Jason Laws and Justin Schmidt are effective without being ostentatious.
Incorruptible • Through Nov. 10, 7:30 pm Wed-Sat, 2 pm Sat-Sun • Interplayers • 174 S Howard St. • $28 ($22 senior/military, $15 student) • interplayers.org • (509) 455-7529