Having presented excellent revivals of Sean O’Casey’s three most important plays, the Irish Rep has turned to Little Gem, a new play by Elaine Murphy, that’s riskier. Murphy’s work consists of three intertwined monologues. The structure may not appeal to everyone, and it’s a work that will find more resonance among women, but the performers, under the direction of Marc Atkinson Borrull, bring all their considerable power to invigorating a story that doesn’t rely on flash or action.
Meredith Ries has set the scene in a waiting room of some sort, although not all the action takes place there. Initially, a young woman (Lauren O’Leary) starts talking about her dating habits, her boyfriend and the drinking and drugs she indulges in. She’s modern and has less than stellar morals, and her accent and references are sometimes hard to follow—even if one is attentive, as when her family gathers as she prepares to go to a big dance:
“Let a roar at my ma. She’s sewing on the orchid Paul brought me, but missed the strap and got my chest instead. My nanny’s over now, dabbing the spot of blood away with a tissue. They’re all wrecking my head, pulling out of me. Tell me man, I just saw Marian’s little one squash an egg mayonnaise sandwich down the back of her new leather sofa. She’s gone like a hot snot, armed with a J Cloth and Cillit Bang.”
Later one learns her name is Amber, and she’s jealous of her boyfriend Paul, and willing to fight any other girl who might be flirting with him. As her description of the evening wears on, one’s comprehension increases. Lines like “The lads are all over us like a cheap pair of jocks from Japan—Henry Street, not the country” may be impenetrable, but eventually a sense of context, even in the unfamiliar passages, lessens the bumpy ride.
The second monologuist is Lorraine, a middle-aged woman who works in a store and gets irritated when customers pick up items, such as mascara, and don’t put them back correctly. After a near-altercation with a troublesome customer, she’s called into the manager’s office, where we learn that she knows someone named Amber (nobody is identified at first; the names slip out eventually). Bits of Lorraine’s come out, but what’s relevant—she worries about whether she has locked her doors—is not necessarily picked up on by a listener. She’s also not been having sex lately, and a friend sets her up on a blind date.
The third woman is the oldest, Kay, who starts out with “I’ve an itch, down there.” She begins talking about that discomfort between her legs: “Sometimes, when it’s really bad, I open the bottom window in the living room and rest my leg on the ledge to let a bit of air circulate.” For the first time, we learn a speaking character’s name: she is Mrs. Neville, and when she says, “Gem doesn’t like having people in his house all the time,” there’s a connection to the title. She also mentions her daughter, Lorraine.
As the monologues shift back and forth, Kay (Mrs. Neville) meets a friend and spills the beans about her itch. “She says to go into Ann Summers and get myself a Rampant Rabbit. She got one six months ago and wouldn’t be without it.” She visits the sex shop: “I can’t believe the size of it. I can only describe it like a luminous, pink, plastic towbar. It has ridges all over it, silver beads down the bottom and a little claw thing sticking out the front.”
Murphy begins to intertwine the three narrative threads, and one learns the women are parent, child and grandchild. Amber is the daughter of Lorraine; Lorraine, the daughter of Kay (Mrs. Neville); and Kay’s husband is the failing Gem, no longer able to perform a husband’s sexual duties, leading his wife to the sex shop.
Murphy indulges in some hackneyed, facile laughs: the idea of an older woman (superbly played by Marsha Mason, with an impressive Irish accent), for example, was soil turned over repeatedly on The Golden Girls. Lorraine’s blind date, Niall, “is a baldy fella about the same height as myself. I swear, I have never seen so much body hair on one person.” Niall’s hirsute body is a running joke.
Still, the characters’ lives and trials deepen and their resilience grows on the listener. One comes to care about their bittersweet lives. Murphy’s play, her first, shows a great deal of promise, and the Irish Rep production does it credit.
Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem plays through Sept. 8 at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 W. 22nd St.). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and at 7 p.m. Thursday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call the box office at (212) 727-2737, or visit irishrep.org.