The triple bill of one-acts at the Irish Repertory Theatre is a rare chance to see plays by Lady Gregory, William Butler Yeats and John Millington Synge, although in small-space productions downstairs at the invaluable venue. One may not feel that the first two plays, The Pot of Broth and The Rising of the Moon, should occupy the umbrella title of Three Small Irish Masterpieces alongside Synge’s Riders to the Sea, which fits the bill; the first two seem slight by comparison. But they make a pleasant enough evening of unfamiliar entertainment, enhanced by the proximity to St. Patrick’s Day.
The opener is The Pot of Broth, co-written by Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory, who were prime movers behind the creation of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Taking place in a dingy hovel designed by James Morgan, with a hearth at its center, worn crockery, old brooms, and a cross in the window, the 1903 play concerns a rascally vagabond (David O’Hara) who enters an unlocked cottage and scuttles around looking for food. He hides under a table when the owners enter: John Coneely (Colin Lane) is a poor farmer under the thumb of his wife, Sibby (Clare O’Malley), bossy and challenging, though not shrewish. She grumbles that the priest is coming to dinner and will expect meat, so she has plucked a hen even though they’re impoverished. When they discover the tramp, she demands that he leave, but he manages to spin a tale that entrances her—he’s got a magical stone that will make a delicious pot of broth all by itself—and she falls for it.
O’Hara plays the tramp as if he were Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, sometimes disconcertingly addressing the audience directly, especially in an overlong monologue. The pleasure in the play comes from seeing the way he hoodwinks Sibby, slipping ingredients into the pot, while John views it all with vicarious pleasure, keeping mum as his overbearing wife is taken in.
A similar delaying tactic is used by a beggar in The Rising of the Moon (1907), a solo effort by Lady Gregory. A sergeant and a policeman (Lane and O’Hara, respectively) are standing guard near a quay where they expect to find a wanted man hoping to escape their dragnet by boat. When the policeman goes on his rounds, a vagabond comes by and wants to pass, but the sergeant orders him to be on his way. The man (Adam Petherbridge) tries to peddle some ballads he has written, but the sergeant isn’t buying. Still, the derelict finally catches the sergeant’s interest, and, predictably, turns out to be the hunted man—an Irish nationalist. He has recognized in the officious sergeant a fellow nationalist whose rebellious spirit has been tamed, but he manages to raise a spark of the sergeant’s youthful ardor. The play has some interest politically, perhaps, but is the weakest of the three, although the unsettling mood is helped by Michael Gottlieb’s murky blue night lighting.
Almost as soon as Riders to the Sea commences, however, it’s clear that Synge’s play is several cuts above its predecessors. The 1904 masterpiece concerns Maurya, who has lost four sons to the wild Irish Sea. Her daughters Cathleen (Jennifer McVey) and Nora (O’Malley) have received a package of clothing that may have belonged to their brother Michael, whose disappearance at sea hasn’t yet been confirmed as a drowning. Meanwhile, Maurya’s last son, Bartley (Petherbridge), is preparing to cross the sea to Connemara, where there’s an important horse fair, on the only boat leaving for two weeks. He’s in a hurry, but Maurya urges him not to go: “It’s hard set we’ll be surely the day you’ve drown’d with the rest. What way will I live and the girls with me, and I an old woman looking for the grave?” The offbeat syntax of the Irish tongue soars to poetry in Synge’s hands: “There’s no sense left on any person in a house where an old woman will be talking forever,” says Cathleen. The story of poor people struggling ends with a tragic fluke accident.
Director Charlotte Moore has lengthened the running time of 75 minutes with some traditional Irish music—fiddle, bodhrán and vocals—between the plays, performed by McVey, Petherbridge, and O’Malley. Ballads like “The Little Beggarman” are welcome enough, but they come to feel a bit like padding. An interpolated dirge that closes Riders to the Sea would benefit from cutting; the power of Synge’s masterpiece begins to dwindle from the extended sequence. Still, for fans of Irish theater, these short pieces, if not indispensable, come around too seldom to miss.
The Irish Rep’s production of Three Small Irish Masterpieces runs through April 22 in the company’s W. Scott McLucas Studio Stage (132 W. 22nd St.). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and at 7 p.m. on Thursday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call the box office at (212) 727-2737 or visit irishrep.org.