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The playwright Kate Fodor has an appetite for big subjects: her Hannah and Martin capably dramatised the relationship between the philosophers Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger. Fodor also has a gift for creating strong characters. In her new play, 100 Saints You Should Know, at Playwrights Horizons, however, the characters are vivid but, after a strong start, the overall effect is underwhelming.

Fodor’s subject is the longing for religious belief. Father Matthew, played by Jeremy Shamos, is a Harvard-educated Roman Catholic priest whose encounter with some nude-male photographs of George Platt Lynes awakens a longing for new experiences. Theresa, played by Janel Moloney, is a part-time maid whose lifelong non-belief has been challenged by, among other things, the words of female saints.

The intersection of these spiritual strivers should be fertile ground for drama. But instead of concentrating at least in part on the intellectual aspects of religion, which would risk dryness but be easier to manage structurally, Fodor opts for the emotional approach. The characters begin and end in loneliness – which could convey human truth, if they weren’t eventually swamped by prayerful sogginess.

You don’t have to be a Freudian to see sexuality and relationships with parents at the root of so much religious longing and, to Fodor’s credit, she explores these aspects head on. Suspended from his parish for those photographic interests, Father Matthew returns to stay with his Irish-American mother, played by Lois Smith. The actress expertly conveys loquaciousness, and, then, when the mother dissolves into Puritanical stereotype, thankless dignity.

Theresa’s cross is her 16-year-old daughter Abby. The drama’s most sensible religious thinker, Abby is an alluring hellion: “I’m just bad,” she proclaims to an awkward teenage boy, Garrett, whose fate saddles the story with one too many serious topics.

Abby is played with hilarious, gum-snapping swagger by Zoe Kazan. The granddaughter of the iconic Hollywood director Elia Kazan, this performer has a tendency to locate a single aspect of a character and amplify it. Such an approach suffices with the tough teenagers Kazan has played to date, but she’ll need shading once grown-up roles come her way. For now, though, get out of Kazan ’s way: though not a conventional looker, she’s got something better than fashion-mag beauty – commanding presence.
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