John Patrick Shanley Is This Theater Season’s King Dramatist

Shanley talks about the revival of his Pulitzer Prize Winning 'Doubt' on Broadway — his second revival of the season — and his new show Off Broadway.

John Patrick Shanley attends the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2024 Gala at The Ziegfeld Ballroom on March 04, 2024 in New York City. Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

“I’m a longtime fan of the drop-off laundry,” crows playwright John Patrick Shanley with a certain discernible pride. Somehow, he convinces you he sees more into it than anyone else. 

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“First of all,” he tells Observer, “there’s this ceremony you go through when you go in and leave your bag in the laundry. They put it on the scales and look at it and decide how much you are going to pay—but it feels as if they’re, basically, judging a week of your life from the clothes you bring in. That kind of mythological putting-your-soul-on-the-scales goes back a pretty long way.”

John Patrick Shanley and the cast of Brooklyn Laundry: (from left) David Zayas, Shanley, Cecily Strong, Florencia Lozano, and Andrea Syglowski Jeremy Daniel

The most conspicuous Exhibit A of what he sees is Brooklyn Laundry, a brand-new play (his first since the pandemic). It is installed till the end of the month at New York City Center’s Manhattan Theater Club, which presented numerous Shanleys, including Doubt: A Parable, now getting a splendid Broadway revival at the newly named Todd Haimes Theater in Times Square. 

What “inspired” Brooklyn Laundry was the loss of Shanley’s own load of laundry, wrongly rerouted into the stratosphere for strangers to mull over the foreign bundle they have just received. This lost laundry led to another procedure: “Having to come up with a number for a store credit and going over it every time I came in with new laundry.” His bundle has never resurfaced. 

This irritating situation prompts, of all things, a love story between a laundry proprietor, Owen (David Zayas), and Fran (Cecily Strong), the customer whose laundry he lost. Beyond the fact both are momentarily single, having been ghosted by their exes, they don’t have very much in common. But she resembles his former fiancee, and he sizes her up as “smart, one-inch from terrific, but gloomy,” so he talks her into a date to try to make sense of their oddball pairing.

David Zayas and Cecily Strong in Brooklyn Laundry. Jeremy Daniel

Owen has no idea just how gloomy Fran is. She has one sister, Trish (Florencia Lozano), who lives in a trailer in Pennsylvania with advancing cancer and kids. Her other sister, Susie (Andrea Syglowski), the designated caretaker who has also come down with cancer. This leaves Fran in the impossible position of shopping around for a husband with a ready-made family in tow.

Again, Shanley admits that real life has crept into his fiction. “It’s always some kind of amalgam,” he says. “My sister, Bonnie, died in a trailer in Maryland years ago, and I was there. My other sister, Patsy, came in to see the play. She came a long way, from upstate New York because she knew that scene was in the play, and she wanted to have that experience.”

The surrounding sorrow threatens to douse the rom-com sparks, but Shanley is saying, “That’s life.” In his other words, “the true experience of life that people have is a multi-colored quilt. When we tell a story on stage or film, too often we sanitize those other colors. We just make it a comedy or make it a tragedy, but life’s not really like that. It’s more complicated than that.”

Amy Ryan, Zoe Kazan, and Liev Schreiber in Roundabout Theatre Company’s new Broadway production of Doubt: A Parable. Joan Marcus

Doubt, the drama that earned Shanley the Tony Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and an Oscar nomination, has done some growing, too. “I’m just grateful that it has survived all the cultural shifts,” he says. “When we did the play originally, I think that we were, as a country, a much more complacent place. Now, 20 years later, I feel that the audience walks into the theater riddled with doubt on a conscious level—and that sorta changes the experience of the play.”

The play begins and ends in doubt. It starts with a sermon by Father Flynn (Liev Schreiber), assuring the flock that “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty,” and it concludes with Sister Aloysius (Amy Ryan) coming to the devastating realization she’s wildly overstepped her authority and is no longer doing God’s work but serving her own rigid agenda. 

When Sister Aloysius learns from the young, impressionable Sister James (Zoe Kazan) that Father Flynn did not report a student, the first and only Black student in the school, for sampling the Communion wine, she suspects sexual improprieties and keeps that thought, eventually bringing the notion to the attention of the boy’s mother (Quincy Tyler Bernstein).

There’s a fishhook in this scene that turns the table on the whole drama—one of the best-written or most unexpected 10-minute scenes in existence. It garnered Tony Awards for Cherry Jones and Adriane Lenox (two of the five that Doubt won) and Oscar nominations for Meryl Streep and Viola Davis (two of five in 2009—though none of those nominations turned into wins). And, most likely, it will put Amy Ryan and Quincy Tyler Bernstein in the running for the Tony this year. 

Amy Ryan and Quincy Tyler Bernstine in Doubt. Joan Marcus

Ryan, a last-minute replacement for Tyne Daly, who bowed out because of a medical emergency, was a apropos candidate for Sister Aloysius given that the time of the original 2004 production she was the fiancée of Father Flynn (Brian F. O’Bryne). “In a different way,” Shanley notes, “romance was very much involved because Brian fell in love with the Sister James actress, Heather Goldenhersh, moved her to Ireland, and we’ve never seen her again.”

O’Bryne returned to Broadway in 2014 in another Shanley play, Outside Mulligan, which was set on neighboring farms in the Midlands of Ireland. He was the bashful boy on one, and Debra Messing was the amorously interested girl next farm over. They sealed it with an epic kiss.

“It’s always an interesting thing, what people remember,” Shanley says about that kiss. “You do something that’s an hour and a half, two hours long, and they’ll say, ‘You know, when she slapped his face and said, ‘Snap out of it’—that’s the whole movie for that particular person.”

He’s referring to a scene between Cher and Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck, which won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The only line in the film he didn’t write—“Your life’s going down the toilet”—was an Olympia Dukakis ad-lib. “I was not in favor of it, but people love it.”

A third John Patrick Shanley piece—1984’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea—was recently revived at the Lucille Lortel Theater from October to January with Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott, making him this season’s King Dramatist. That production was out of reach for many. “The tickets were going for 300 bucks a pop,” says Shanley. “It turns out that Christopher Abbott was a major box office draw. More power to him, but there were problems. He tore his meniscus and went on for, like two weeks, on crutches. Then, Aubrey Plaza got Covid. Both understudies had to go on, and the director went on. It was quite a carnival, but they ended up profitable, which is saying something given all that—profitable and then some.”

Shanley’s next step is filming Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, which he has already adapted. Maybe he can lure into the lead the actor he introduced to New York audiences eight years ago as Prodigal Son—Timothee Chalamet, who’s recently been back in New York shooting the Bob Dylan biopic A Complete Unknown. After all, he is on quite a roll. 

Buy tickets for Brooklyn Laundry here and for Doubt here





John Patrick Shanley Is This Theater Season’s King Dramatist