Frequent stage presence Skip Maloney presents his original script, “Billy and the Pope” at TheatreNOW through January 22. Maloney’s script imagines a Bill Maher-like comedian, named Billy Flanagan (Zach Hanner), who receives an invitation to visit the Pope (Craig Myers) at the Vatican. What could possibly motivate the Pontiff to invite a vulgar, irreverent talk-show comedian to visit the Vatican? Not only is Flanagan curious but so is the Vatican staff.
His Holiness is found in a private kitchen baking bread and enjoying some music. It is disarming, to say the least. Hanner and Myers both have an interesting balance to strike with their characters, because they are both obviously inspired by recognizable people, but neither is supposed to be a realistic depiction of either person. Hanner’s performance has some nods to Maher: his cadence, his fire, his body language. But Hanner makes Flanagan a different person who isn’t constrained by anyone’s image of Maher. It is a nice touch. Myers brings to life the pope that everyone wants to meet. Sweet, charming, benevolent, but very good at poker.
According to the Papal staff, Sister Thomas Regina (Marie Chonko) and Demetri Serrano (Kent West), the Pope wants to use Flanagan to lay a trap for a visiting delegation from the US. It seems the pope has a special message he wants to convey, and he needs help to do it. So this unlikely scenario has them worried. Is this fair, what the pope has planned? Chonko’s Sister Regina fulfills every expectation of a “nun” the average lay person walks in the door with: efficient, no-nonsense and unmovable on principles she believes in. West does well with putting Flanagan on edge; He is not taken in by Flanagan and objects to his presence at the pope’s side. West’s Demetri is a company man who served the two previous popes, and part of his edginess made me pretty certain he would kill for this one if asked to do so. It’s an odd set up of these four cooking, eating and drinking while trying to strategize for the forthcoming meeting. Three out of four trust each other at any given time.
Apparently the delegation from the US is of a highly conservative bent: two Republican congress members, a senator and a member of a right-wing splinter group is backing one of the congressmen for a presidential run. Maloney targets the political system with a take-no-prisoners stance. Hollis Gabriel (Steve Spain) brings us a grand old man of the Senate. At his age he has lost patience with pretense. His foil is Mike Donaldson (Bryan Cournoyer), a fringe candidate in the Republican primary for president. Cournoyer’s Donaldson is impressed with himself and is for sale. His slick exterior is ready for a photo-op and quick sound-bite but not for sustained scrutiny. His puppet master, Gavin Burke (David M. Bollinger), has the righteous indignation and certainty of the true fanatic. He’s just chauvinistic and self-important enough to be rude—yet entitled enough not to realize it.
The junior congressman, Butch Thomas (Joseph Basquill), has the charm of a politician with the youth and naiveté of a freshman. Whereas the others are all focused on their message and mission, he is clearly awed by his surroundings and experiences. He drinks it all in with joy and fascination. He’s really the only likable one of the bunch. The lone female congressperson of the delegation, Aline Phelps (Laura Dixon), is given the hefty weight of recalling the recent history of the physically and medically dangerous world of life pre-Roe v. Wade in America. While listening to her monologue several images swam before my eyes: my aunt who had a back-alley abortion that left her medically damaged for life; Abbie Hoffman’s graphic description of flying to the Caribbean with his wife to seek an abortion and the terrifying conditions they found (he describes it in great detail in his autobiography); a family friend whose mother tried to abort her with a coat hanger: her face was “a horror show” and reminder for her entire life of the desperate act of single woman without resources. Maloney chooses to frame this argument largely with men—only two characters in the discussion are female: a nun and the congresswoman. It is a pretty striking visual of women participating fully in the national (and international) discussion about their own bodies. One has to wonder if the discussion revolved around male reproductive rights, access to health care and privacy, how men would respond to women controlling that conversation?
Maloney’s script raises some interesting questions about power and the responsibility that comes with it—both great and small, personal and political. What is refreshing is, after setting up this momentous meeting with the pope, the delegation does not suddenly (and unbelievably) all change their minds about something they feel deeply about. (Though clearly Pope Francis can work those kinds of miracles: Just look at John Boehner.) Perhaps the pope in this show is a bit naïve about what he has done with this meeting. Or perhaps the Catholic Church plays the long game in a way American political minds cannot comprehend. We see things in a 24-hour news cycle and 18-month election cycle. But the Catholic Church outlasts that by hundreds of years.
Maloney’s script is thoughtful, humorous and intriguing. The cast really brings it life with the discomfort of the meeting, the family like relationships of the pope and his loyal staff, and the confused but well-intentioned world of Mr. Flanagan, fighting a battle with the most unlikely of allies.