The Irish Repertory Theatre’s Sean O’Casey Season concludes with The Plough and the Stars, whose title is synonymous with the flag for the Irish Citizen Army. The last of O’Casey’s trilogy, which includes The Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock, has joined the other two in repertory, and it’s a rougher, more jagged experience. Like the others, it takes place in a tenement; here the numerous characters move in and out of the parlor of Nora and Jack Clitheroe.
On Aug. 14, 1924, after a third night of sold-out houses at the Abbey Theater in Dublin, inveterate Irish playgoer Joseph Holloway noted in his diary: “The Shadow of a Gunman [has] been staged for three nights with the usual result—that crowds had to be turned away each performance. . . . Certainly [Sean O’Casey] has written the two most popular plays ever seen at the Abbey, and they both are backgrounded by the terrible times we have just passed through, but his characters are so true to life and humorous that all swallow the bitter pill of fact that underlies both pieces.”
Aficionados of the bleak works of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett may want to pay a visit to the Irish Rep’s production of On Beckett. But be advised that a passion for the author is a helpful prerequisite. Actor-comedian Bill Irwin takes a deep dive into the works of the Nobel Prize–winning playwright—he calls it a “personal memoir.” Irwin proves a trustworthy guide through several of Beckett’s works, from the world-famous Waiting for Godot to the obscure work Stories and Texts for Nothing.
At the start, Irwin says wryly, “My knowledge of Samuel Beckett’s work is deep. In places.” One of those places is Waiting for Godot, a peak of modern dramatic literature. Irwin played Lucky in the 1988 Broadway production with Steve Martin and Robin Williams, and he shares a story or two about it; the character of Lucky is mostly silent except for a burst of energy in a rambling five-minute speech. In a 2009 Broadway revival he played one of the two tramps, Vladimir, to Nathan Lane’s Estragon. Even though Irwin may be best-known as a silent clown like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, his dramatic bona fides are also rock-solid. He won a Tony Award in 2005 as George, opposite Kathleen Turner in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? All those talents come into play in On Beckett.
At the Irish Rep, Irwin performs on a nearly bare stage, and most of the show is a solo turn. (For the last moments of Godot he brings on a young actor, Finn O’Sullivan, who plays the boy who appears at the end of both acts to announce that Godot isn’t coming, but he will be there the following day.)
Irwin addresses the minutiae of Beckett scholarship, starting with pronunciation. Is the title character pronounced God-OH or GOD-oh? (The British prefer the latter pronunciation; the former is generally American.) He says that he used to pronounce it the American way until the Broadway production, directed by the British Anthony Page.
“Why does this writing call me?” he asks. “All I can say is we were taught to emulate Socrates—my generation—good liberal arts citizens. Taught to emulate Socrates—except for the suicide—and the gay sex—but we were urged to examine our lives—lest they be found not worth living.”
While Irwin eventually tackles Waiting for Godot, he delves into the much less-known Texts for Nothing, a series of numbered prose monologues, bringing out the poetry and the bleakness in the works:
The graveyard, yes, it’s there I’d return, this evening it’s there, borne by my words, if I could get out of here, that is to say if I could say, There’s a way out there, there’s a way out somewhere, to know exactly where would be a mere matter of time, and patience, and sequency of thought, and felicity of expression. But the body, to get there with, where’s the body? It’s a minor point, a minor point. And I have no doubts, I’d get there somehow, to the way out, sooner or later, if I could say, There’s a way out there, there’s a way out somewhere, the rest would come, the other words, sooner or later, and the power to get there, and the way to get there, and pass out, and see the beauties of the skies, and see the stars again.
And Irwin’s analysis of this long passage is as erudite as you’d find in a college seminar:
Those last lines echo the final lines of Canto 34 of Dante’s Inferno—as the characters climb back up from Hell: “And so we came up and once again beheld the stars.” And that line is the epigraph in William Styron’s book Darkness Visible—A Memoir of Madness. About severe depression. “Darkness visible” is a line of Milton’s, from Paradise Lost. There seem to be some shared touchstones for all who have descended to a hell, and returned.
To leaven Beckett’s grim worldview, Irwin brings spoonfuls of sugar with his own expert clowning into play. He dons baggy pants, an oversize coat and various hats—a boater, a bowler (standard issue for the tramps in Godot) and a porkpie, among others. Physically, he slouches, wambles, and stands straight, and at one point does a classic bit of business involving pressing a button at a podium that purportedly makes the podium rise or descend. There is no mechanical apparatus, of course: he is creating the illusion through his own extraordinary physical grace.
On Beckett is a perfect marriage of actor to material. Irwin loves it, and one can’t imagine a better guide, with more insight, into the touchstones of modernism that Beckett created.
Bill Irwin’s On Beckett runs through Nov. 4 at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd St., Manhattan). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday and at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call (212) 727-2737 or visit irishrep.org.
Was Daisy Gamble, the leading character of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, ever reincarnated as much as the Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane musical-comedy-operetta itself? In the show, about paranormal activity and past lives, Daisy’s seeming prior existence as a Regency beauty fascinates one Dr. Mark Bruckner, an analyst who believes in previous lives and ESP.
Irish playwright Marina Carr attempts to capture the thoughts and sentiments of a woman during her last hours alive in Woman and Scarecrow. With skillful direction by Ciarán O’Reilly, this production delves into the innermost feelings of a woman who is learning about the meaning of life at the last possible moment. Carr has chosen to use general character names that could represent anyone, to suggest a universality to the situation: the principals here are Woman, Scarecrow, Him, Aunty Ah and Thing.
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.
Disco is one of those words that the senses respond to instantly with several very particular references: late 1960s or early ’70s New York City spring to mind. However, the world of Disco Pigs is a far cry from that, and disco assumptions are turned on their head. Enda Walsh’s play strips the term bare of its bright-lights, big-city ballroom connotations, throws a hefty dose of punk into the trunk, then turns off-road onto the aimless side of life. But it does so with deep, dark humor, wide-eyed invention and heaps of passion.
The “home place” in the title of Irish playwright Brian Friel's 2005 drama is Kent, England, where the family of widowed landowner Christopher Gore (John Windsor-Cunningham) originated. Gore, residing in Ballybeg, Ireland, speaks of Kent as a paradise lost, though he’s never really lived there. He and his son David (Ed Malone) administer their Irish estates with an uneasy liberality toward their tenants, made all the more uneasy by the recent murder of another local English landlord.
For the first production by Irish Repertory Theatre on its return to its 22nd Street location after a year’s renovation and exile, artistic director Charlotte Moore has chosen (or perhaps approved) Conor McPherson’s Shining City, a 2004 play about a psychiatrist and his patient who wrestle with secrets and regrets that is directed by longtime associate Ciarán O’Reilly. (Shining City was eventually seen on Broadway in 2006.) In some ways the play is a mixed bag: McPherson’s early works, such as The Weir (1997) and Port Authority (2003), rely on interrelated monologues to tell a story. In The Weir, for instance, a group of people gather in a bar and tell ghost stories, one by one. In later works, such as The Seafarer and The Night Alive, McPherson becomes less reliant on speeches than on give-and-take that resembles real conversation.
Shining City concerns a Dublin psychiatrist, Ian (Billy Carter), who has taken on a patient, John, a man who cannot sleep in his home since he saw the ghost of his dead wife, Maury, killed in a violent traffic accident. Played by Matthew Broderick with a deft Irish brogue, John is worried about his sanity. The memory of the apparition haunts him, and he cannot stay overnight in his home. John seeks Ian’s help in restoring him to sleep at night. In a series of near-monologues with the psychiatrist, John reviews his life and marriage.
Ian, meanwhile, has troubles of his own. He wants out of his marriage to Lisa Dwan’s Neasa, and when Neasa arrives and listens to him explain, she seems rather a dunce, cottoning to the fact that he’s leaving her long after the audience knows it. The couple have a row in his home office, and he assures her he’ll take care of her but that he won’t return to the marriage. There’s less give-and-take than there is of Ian’s staking out his position fully, and then Neasa delivering her side of the story. O’Reilly’s direction can’t disguise that the playwright is still adapting to conversational back-and-forth.
Anyone familiar with McPherson’s work knows that something eerie is going to happen, but when it does, unfortunately, the effect is much less chilling than it was in the Broadway production. Whether it’s due to Broderick’s laid-back delivery, which, although an appropriate choice for the character, somehow makes the proceedings too cozy, and the audience too comfortable, or whether O’Reilly’s staging simply fails to do the moment justice, is unclear.
But Broderick is doing better work than he has in a long time. He’s taken on a gigantic role and he’s never less than enjoyable in it. Billy Carter as the psychiatrist is also exemplary. His Ian is energetic, sympathetic, emotionally torn and yet willing to face hard truths. A late entrance by James Russell’s Laurence, a pickup for sex, reveals much about Ian, who abandoned the priesthood in order to marry Neasa. Yet a final scene further complicates the nature of Ian’s character, and one senses that perceptions are not to be relied upon. It calls to mind Hamlet’s observation, “There is more in heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.” It's a good epigraph for the play’s finale as well.
That Ian’s name is the Gaelic version of “John” is a subtle hint at the haunting climax. The Irish Rep’s Shining City is a satisfying, if not ideal, rendering of what feels like a transitional play by an important modern playwright.
The Irish Rep’s Shining City plays through July 3 at the company’s refurbished home at 132 W. 22 St. in Manhattan. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday and at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call Ovationtix at (212) 727-2737 or visit irishrep.org.
The play takes place following a civil war, in which the brothers of Antigone, Eteocles and Polyneices, clashed. Heaney doesn’t delve into the source of the conflict: the brothers were to share the crown year by year, but Eteocles refused to step down when Polyneices’ turn came, and Polyneices took up arms against him. Both brothers have died in the deciding battle, and the leadership of Thebes is now in the hands of Creon, Antigone’s uncle and the brother of Jocasta—who may be remembered as both mother and grandmother to Antigone; her sister, Ismene; and their late brothers. Polyneices has been tarred as a traitor by Creon; he has declared that Eteocles will be buried as a hero, but Polyneices will be left unburied as carrion.
Heaney, who had reworked Philoctetes into a play, The Cure at Troy, in 1990, shows a keen sense of the drama in Antigone’s first words, underlining urgency and giving a streamlined sense of the conflict to come as well as the burden of the sisters’ history.
Ismene, quick, come here!
What’s to become of us?
Why are we always the ones?
There’s nothing, sister, nothing
Zeus hasn’t put us through
Just because we are who we are—
The daughters of Oedipus.
Compare that with the sedate 1962 translation by Michael Townsend:
My darling sister Ismene, we have had
A fine inheritance from Oedipus.
God has gone through the whole range of sufferings.
And piled them all on us—grief upon grief,
Humiliation upon humiliation.
Heaney sticks with “Zeus” for the flavor of the original, rather than a Christianized “God,” and his simpler language moves more swiftly. His version of the story sounds more energetic to the modern ear (though one wishes he had avoided use of the anachronistic “beyond the pale”—it occurs not once or twice, but three times). Omitting the traditional chorus, Heaney focuses on individual personalities and equalizes their weight, especially benefiting Winsome Brown’s helplessly distraught Eurydice.
The sisters’ dilemma is sparked by Paul O’Brien’s stern, autocratic Creon, whose edict demands death for anyone who buries Polyneices. His actions are an affront to the gods, and to Rebekah Brockman’s passionate, righteous Antigone. Katie Fabel’s Ismene is also upset but lacks the gumption to join Antigone in secretly burying their brother. To complicate matters, Antigone is betrothed to Haemon, Creon’s son (the intermarriage of the cousins in a family plagued by incest goes unremarked; after all, it’s long before blood work and DNA testing).
The cast, under the astute direction of Charlotte Moore, brings passion and fire to Heaney’s language. When Creon condemns Antigone for her actions and resists Haemon’s pleas to spare Antigone, Eurydice worries about the effect on Haemon, as well as her husband’s transgression of Greek custom. Yet Heaney’s virtue is that he simplifies as well, as in Ismene’s initial response to Antigone’s proposal: “Easy now, my sister/Think this through for a minute.” Or, also from Ismene, a passage that foregrounds a modern tension between chauvinism and feminism:
Women, defying Creon?
It’s not a woman’s place.
We’re weak where they are strong.
Because the Irish Rep is forced to use the DR2 Theatre during renovations to its 22nd Street home, and the cramped stage means Tony Walton’s set consists of a couple raised platforms and some decorative vertical roping, the actors must sidle off awkwardly. Nonetheless, the cast is solid, with Robert Langdon Lloyd’s blind seer Tiresias a sizzling standout. Colin Lane brings comic worry to the part of the guard who has let Antigone slip by and bury Polyneices—and then redeems himself with her capture. Curiously, he and Rod Brogan as the Messenger have pronounced Irish accents, which seem to mark them as a different class from the royals; but then Ciarán Bowling’s accent as the royal heir Haemon muddies the issue. Quibbles aside, even if this version of Sophocles feels Irish only by virtue of accents of some of its cast and its author’s birth, it’s a welcome foray into seldom seen Greek drama.
Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes plays through March 6 at the DR2 Theatre (103 E. 15th St. between Union Square East and Irving Pl.) in Manhattan. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday, and at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, and Friday-Sunday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $71 and can be purchased at by calling 212-727-2737 or visiting OvationTix.com.
Catholicism and politics are at the forefront of Nate Rufus Edelman’s bittersweet drama The Belle of Belfast, being given a compelling production at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Edelman follows a small Catholic community in the Northern Ireland capital in 1985 as they negotiate the dominant strands of the troubles and how deeply they are ingrained in people’s lives.
Under director Claudia Weill, the wry humor of these scenes is a welcome contrast to the main event, which involves Emma’s great-niece, Anne (Katy Lydic), a red-haired knockout who has little use for Catholicism, let alone the church. Anne attends confession at her aunt’s instigation with great reluctance and scorn. She swears and makes clear to Reilly that she does drugs, has sex, and generally ignores church teachings. Her drifting moral compass is a result of the killing of both her parents in a bombing. That alone isn’t the most hurtful part—it’s that people regarded her parents as martyrs, although they were innocent bystanders. Anne loathes the politics that elevate her parents to political heroes and override her personal loss.
Reilly feels kinship toward Anne because he was also orphaned. After his parents were killed in a car accident, Reilly was determined to become a priest to make them proud. Unfortunately, Anne knows no boundaries. “Do you have anything to confess?” asks Reilly, and she responds, “No, I just came here to give you a blow job.” It’s the kind of thing an unruly teenager would say, but Lydic looks about 10 years older than the 18-year-old character, and it hampers some of the credibility of the play. However, Allan-Headley as Reilly is a compelling presence: sympathetic, vulnerable and masculine. The actor conveys the cleric's internal struggles, and he has the gift of charisma that makes it clear why Anne falls for Reilly. (All the actors, incidentally, have persuasive Irish accents.)
John McDermott’s set nicely echoes the compartmentalization of emotions that are hemming in the principals. When the characters are not in the confines of the confessional, there are two primary playing areas. One is the small parish apartment that Reilly shares with Father Dermott Behan (Billy Meleady), a firebrand Sinn Fein partisan who has made peace with abnegation—no sex, but plenty of alcohol—and expects to find a heaven where he can surf. The other half of the stage shows a concrete dock and a high wall topped by barbed wire, where Anne frequently meets her friend Ciara (Arielle Hoffman) to talk about boys and sex. Both spaces are prisons for their respective characters.
Ultimately, Anne (her nickname provides the title of the play) leads Reilly astray, but not for long, and the aftermath isn’t what one might expect. The doctrinaire Behan, who hears Reilly’s confession, holds fast to the outlook that plagued Belfast in 1985: “I’ve dedicated ma entire existence to a united Catholic Ireland and you have the gall to betray your church and your country…” But Reilly understands that political and religious doctrine can stand in the way of success as a priest. In a lovely coda, Anne and Reilly meet a few years later, and each has moved on from the experience, both physically and mentally. Anne has found happiness. Reilly has found solace. It’s a satisfying close to this poignant tragedy.
Nate Rufus Edelman’s The Belle of Belfast plays through June 7 at the Irish Repertory Theatre’s temporary home at DR2 Theaters (103 East 15th St.) off Union Square. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. on Tuesday through Thursday and 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, visit www.irishrep.org or call the box office at 212-727-2737.
Hugh Leonard’s Da is a painful coming-of-age story being given an engaging and rare revival by the Irish Repertory Theater in its temporary home at DR2 Theatre off Union Square.
Set in a rural town in Ireland, Leonard’s 1978 Tony winner deals with Charlie, a middle-aged man who has returned to his family home after the death of his father. The memories he has are painful, and it’s clear immediately in Charlotte Moore’s production that Charlie feels some relief at the recently severed tie to his father. But Da isn’t done with his son: his ghost, a boisterous and peremptory Paul O’Brien, shows up to harangue and browbeat Charlie. And Charlie, for his part, feels resentments bubble up in him once again. As the play unfolds, one learns about the origins of their friction, as well as Charlie’s adolescence and working life. He is, in fact, an adoptive son to Da and his Ma (Fiana Toibin).
Clues come early on about how difficult Charlie’s life was, as the family prepares for the arrival of a Mr. Drumm who will interview Charlie for a job. There’s a battle over the shirt that Charlie is supposed to wear. (Adam Petherbridge plays the younger Charlie with a mixture of rebellion and Catholic guilt, while Ciarán O’Reilly shines as the more confident and calmer adult observing his life.) He doesn’t want to wear the one that his mother has patched, and his resistance causes a squabble and earns him a slap.
After Sean Gormley’s thin-lipped, priggish Mr. Drumm arrives, Da, though warned to speak minimally, launches into praise of Hitler. (Some Irishmen supported Hitler because he was at war with their historical enemy, England.) Drumm, judgmental and bloodless, has nothing but contempt for Da, and he expresses it bluntly. Drumm offers Charlie a job nonetheless, with the warning that he shouldn’t stay in it too long—a warning that Charlie, a budding writer, doesn’t heed for more than a decade. A nice irony is that Drumm, unsusceptible to sentiment, gives Charlie sounder advice than his parents offer: “You’ll amount to nothing until you learn to say no.”
Leonard’s story slips from memory to the present and back, sometimes a bit strangely: older Charlie doesn’t merely watch his younger self in scenes—they converse about what’s going on, with the older self advising the younger. O’Brien’s Da is by turns morose, cheerful, overbearing, and proud, and it’s clear he will never be a figure his son will worship. In spite of the cozy warmth suggested by James Morgan’s crockery-filled parlor, this autobiographical play is also rife with unhappiness, stupidity, and emotional abuse.
Leonard’s rich language— “Old faces. They’ve turned up like bills you thought you’d never have to pay”—gets full weight from an excellent cast. Although men are the focus, two actresses in smaller parts make the most of their single scenes. Nicola Murphy plays Mary Tate, a reputed good-time girl that Charlie wants but who has more sweetness than he appreciates. Petherbridge is terrific in the scene, alternately bashful and on the make, and Murphy brings true poignancy to poor Mary, initially aloof, then warming to Charlie’s charms. It’s to Leonard’s credit that Charlie, his own stand-in, comes off poorly. As Da’s employer of decades, Kristin Griffith arrives late in the play to deliver a clueless, insulting pittance to the man who has served as her gardener for years, while she eagerly gathers the bounty he has cultivated. Da is ever the apologist for his poor treatment, too proud to claim more than others are willing to give him, and that gripes the older Charlie. It undoubtedly reflects Leonard’s own struggle to find confidence in himself that he is never destined to receive from either father or mother. Yet, as Charlie finally learns, "Love turned upside down is love for all that."
Performances of Da by the Irish Repertory Theatre take place through March 8 at the DR2 Theatre at 103 E. 15th St., off Union Square. Evening curtains are at 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Matinees are at 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.