The twisted identities and raucous antics of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night have delighted audiences for centuries—and a new production is showing why. Directed by Lynnea Benson, Frog and Peach Theatre Company’s Twelfth Night offers an enjoyably accessible take on the Bard’s famed tale.
The New York premiere of Kristiana Rae Colón’s new play Good Friday could not have come at a more imperative time in our culture. In an age when baby boomers’ once-earnest activism (the women’s movement of the 1970s) has been replaced by millennials’ equally well-meaning, but less effective “slacktivism” (#MeToo, #YesAllWomen), what does it mean in this day and age to call oneself a feminist? And what happens when women are forced to confront their belief systems, however different, just as a crisis occurs?
Over the next few months, the estimable Mint Theater, committed to rediscovering lost theatrical treasures, is producing three works by English playwright Elizabeth Baker. The first is The Price of Thomas Scott, a 1913 comedy-drama that features a top-notch ensemble of New York actors in a handsomely designed staging directed by Jonathan Bank.
In the middle of the last century, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse—producers, publicists, and prolific playwrights—were leading lights in the American entertainment industry. They are now remembered for writing Life with Father, the longest-running nonmusical play in Broadway history, and the libretto of The Sound of Music. Their 1945 hit State of the Union won the Pulitzer Prize and became a Frank Capra movie starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. That play is typical of the witty comedies with serious-minded underpinnings that Broadway audiences relished during World War II and after.
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.”
The challenging economics of New York theater makes two-actor plays a holy grail for Off-Broadway producers. Among the numerous two-handers of the past three or four theater seasons, none has had a more arresting first act than Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland. Set in an Alpine aerie, with Cold War elegance courtesy of scenic designer James J. Fenton, Switzerland depicts a showdown between Patricia Highsmith (Patricia J. Scott), author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, and a man she has just met named Edward Ridgeway (Daniel Petzold).
The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, in revival at the Abrons Arts Center, is about the Catholic activists who burned 378 draft records with napalm in Catonsville, Md., in 1968, because “pouring napalm on pieces of paper is preferable to pouring napalm on human beings.” Its author, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, was a member of the Nine and a lifetime antiwar activist. In his play, Berrigan edits and interweaves excerpts of the trial to build arguments against the Vietnam War and U.S. militarism.
Over the course of the trial, the group’s members attempted to draw connections between issues, only to be told, “We are not trying that case.” Berrigan cannily demonstrates how all social and political issues are linked, no matter how much the powers that be might wish it otherwise. There is little self-awareness in this hyperbolic play (which, for example, draws parallels between the U.S., with its involvement in Vietnam, and Nazi Germany) but plenty of fervent belief in its own virtue.
Yet the play engages in its own bit of division by almost entirely removing the point of view of the war’s victims in order to celebrate antiwar activists. With a cast of only Asian-American actors, this production, directed by Transport Group artistic director (and Catonsville native) Jack Cummings III and co-produced by the National Asian American Theatre Company, provides a small corrective to the play’s narrow viewpoint.
Actors David Huynh, Mia Katigbak, and Eunice Wong are generous performers. Their well-rehearsed connectivity overcomes Cummings’s hyperactive staging, which seats the audience on spartan wooden pews around the perimeter of the Abrons stage (the theater’s actual seats are unused) and often pulls the actors to opposite corners of the set to bring them nearer to the viewers.
The performers shift characters and locales quickly to accommodate the verbatim format, as witnesses take turns testifying. Unfortunately, these shifts happen so often that each role is given only the most superficial characterization; there’s no time for the internal tensions and oppositions that make a character interesting. Katigbak is best able to find colors in the characters she plays, while Huynh has been directed to deliver every line at a relentlessly humorous, overbearing pitch.
In this he reflects the production as a whole. From R. Lee Kennedy’s blood-red lights, which bathe the space as the actors enter the theater to the accompaniment of Barry McGuire’s 1960s protest classic “Eve of Destruction,” to sound designer Fan Zhang’s Brian Eno–lite score and omnipresent low rumbles, shaking the pews, the evening is monochromatically morose. The subject matter is undoubtedly solemn, but by denying the pleasure of activism, the full-body thrill when the match strikes the napalm, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine has made the Vietnam War the one thing it was not and theater the one thing it should never be: boring.
The evening’s best theatrical moment comes near the end of the play, when the stage curtain on one side and the loading door on the other side drop quickly, cutting the audience off from the outside and blinding them with white-hot lights. Setting aside the hypocrisy of a production with so little self-awareness daring to interrogate and implicate its paying audience, the moment at least packs a visceral thrill. Yet the thrill dissolves when the curtain rises at the end to reveal the empty auditorium filled with haze and more blinding white lights, into which the actors disappear as though passing through the pearly gates. The angry protest music of the actors’ entrance becomes the New Age-y strains of DJ Drez’s sitar-heavy “India Dub” of “For What It’s Worth” (you know: “Stop, hey, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down”), and a benign evening honoring activists blossoms into full-blown, tone-deaf hero worship.
Berrigan’s fawning platitude is little better than the propaganda that implores Americans to honor “the troops.” The truth is, we don’t need any play, ever, and it’s past time that productions like The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, which mistake gravitas for gravity and crocodile tears for emotional heft, stop taking that fact for granted.
The Transport Group and the National Asian American Theatre Company’s production of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine plays through Feb. 23 at Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sundays. For tickets and information, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit transportgroup.org.
Last year’s Off-Broadway production of Daniel’s Husband by Michael McKeever focused on a loving gay couple whose lack of a legal document deprived the title character (named Mitch) of the right to determine the care of his spouse, who was stricken with a serious disease. It was easy to sympathize with the principals, whose desire for normal domesticity elicited sympathy. Charles Gershman takes a more daring tack in his new play The Waiting Game: his “hero,” Paolo, is a meth-smoking lodestar of promiscuity.
Paolo’s husband, Sam, has overdosed on heroin and is on life support, brain-dead, although Paolo has since found solace with Tyler, a new boyfriend, who is desperately trying to find a job but is also extricating himself from Paolo’s influence. Gershman deserves credit for taking a darker approach, but the result is puzzling and unsatisfying.
Paolo is more interested in drugs, whether it be a joint or crystal meth. His sex life with Tyler (Julian Joseph) has deteriorated, and Tyler is hanging on in the hope that Paolo may do an about-face and forget Sam. As Tyler points out, “Paolo, you visit like three times in the time that we’re dating. You barely see him in three months…” But Paolo is not thinking straight: he is consumed by the fact that Sam had been having an affair with another man long before his overdose. “All you’ve been saying is that I need to get over Sam,” he tells Tyler. “After ten diff— Ten beautiful years. And the sad thing is I can’t fucking tell much of the time if that’s you being possessive.”
When Paolo meets a man named Geoff at the hospital, he knows that it’s Sam’s new lover. Geoff (Joshua Bouchard), who works in finance, seizes on the chance to meet and talk with Paolo. He wants to persuade Paolo to assign him the conservatorship over Sam’s life because he is, in effect, now the real husband. Paolo, in exchange, demands sex with Geoff. Tyler gets wind of this new twist and, for him, it’s the last straw.
The melodrama is thick, downbeat and contrived. Still, there is something intriguing—although unresolved—in the messages Paolo is receiving on his laptop that he thinks are from the stricken Sam. It’s not his imagination, because Tyler sees them, but it’s also a bit loopy. If it’s not Sam’s spirit, it might be Geoff playing mind games.
There’s little the actors can do to salvage this goulash. There are indications that Paolo hasn’t had it easy in this relationship: he is clearly an emotional mess, riddled with guilt, but Marc Sinoway relies mostly on a sullen pout, broken only occasionally by a smile of faux bonhomie toward Tyler.
The moral center of the play, even more than Joseph’s likable Tyler, is Geoff, the new lover who wants and needs to take care of Sam. Bouchard persuasively embodies decency; his teary-eyed strength stands in contrast to Paolo’s self-destructiveness, and even when he succumbs to sexual blackmail, it’s for Sam’s benefit. (Perhaps it helps, too, that the paleness of Bouchard’s skin gives him an otherworldly, angelic aura, but his magnetism doesn’t depend on that.) Still, even the gay milieu doesn’t enliven the action much.
Director Nathan Wright and his designer, Riw Rakkulchon, have introduced a dose of surrealism into the small black-box space that is as baffling as it is useful. There’s a box marking the perimeter of the playing area, and key props in the plot line: Paolo’s laptop, a pile of New Yorker magazines, Sam’s books of poetry, pipes for crystal meth, and lighters. Each is placed with equal weight, although the cards only come into play in the final moments. Meanwhile, Ibsen Santos, who is Sam, has all the while been hovering upstage, crossing in slow motion, or standing like a ghost figure behind a scrim. On it projection designer Kat Sullivan shows words plucked from the dialogue; then the letters move around to turn them into nonsensical anagrams, but it doesn’t bring one any closer to deducing what Gershman is trying to say.
The Snowy Owl production of The Waiting Game plays through Feb. 23 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, call (646) 892-7999 or visit 59e59.org.
The reinvigoration of a classic can sometimes depend on a good new translation, and the Irish playwright Conor McPherson (already represented this season by the musical Girl from the North Country) has done a sterling job putting juice back into August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, one of the Swedish playwright’s masterpieces. The central couple, a captain named Edgar and his wife, Alice, are close to their 25th wedding anniversary, but their union resembles a pitched battle.
Edgar is the commandant of a remote artillery fortress, and the couple live in penury, constantly squabbling and insulting each other. Alice’s temper has just led her to dismiss their maid. The captain, meanwhile, has alienated everyone on the base—“I refuse to mix with that scum”—so that they have no friends.
Using McPherson’s lively refurbishment, one that is rife with gallows humor, director Victoria Clark has delivered an inspired and beautifully acted production for one half of Classic Stage Company’s Strindberg celebration—a version of Mies Julie is the other part. Anyone conditioned to think a Strindberg play is simply unrelieved gloom will be surprised by how funny Clark’s production is. When Edgar mentions their upcoming anniversary, Alice asks, “You really want to celebrate that?”
Captain: Well of course I do. Don’t you?
Alice: I thought we might show more decorum by keeping our long miserable mistake to ourselves.
McPherson has made tweaks to the dialogue that have enhanced payoffs, as in a passage about wine.
Captain: Have we any of that zinfandel left, chilling away down there in the wine cellar?
Alice: We don’t have a wine cellar.
Captain: What happened to our wine cellar?
Alice: You mean the laundry room?
Strindberg’s original has no mention of a laundry room—only that the wine cellar hasn’t existed for five years. McPherson’s interpolation is not only faithful to the non-existence of the wine cellar, it adds a comic twist.
Perhaps most noticeable is the alteration of a passage in Strindberg when the captain and his wife speak about making their miserable marriage more palatable by bringing a third party into the household. In the original, the captain suggests that Alice bring in a woman friend; she suggests he bring in a male chum. But McPherson sexualizes the passage so deftly that one wonders if Strindberg’s original wasn’t merely a coded version of the same idea:
Captain: You know, I was going to suggest… that perhaps, some evening, we might eh… well, invite a female companion up for a… for an evening. You know.
Alice: I’d prefer we invited a male friend.
Captain: Right. Well… I’m not sure that worked out too well the last time. I mean it is a while ago and it was certainly interesting. I’m not saying no, but my God…
Alice: Yes, I know, afterwards was…
Captain: Yes, the aftermath was…
As the unhappy couple, Richard Topol and Cassie Beck are terrific. They find the nuances in the advances and retreats of their constant battle. Topol’s captain is overbearing and smug, but declining physically. As for Alice, Strindberg’s misogyny is on display, as Beck’s chilly spouse hopes for her husband’s demise. By turns Topol and Beck bring out the nihilism in the dialogue, the grim, life-or-death struggle of their marriage. They are well-matched monsters.
Their battle takes a serious turn when Kurt (Christopher Innvar), the doctor who introduced them and who has just been assigned to the garrison, arrives. The concerned and sympathetic Kurt is drawn into their web until Edgar manages to have his son transferred to the fort. Since Kurt is forbidden by the courts ever to see his children, Edgar’s callousness in bringing the boy so close infuriates him. Meanwhile, Alice once had a fling with Kurt, and she hopes to persuade him to take her away.
Strindberg’s expressionism is also on display in the production, in moments of hallucinatory horror (helped by effective lighting from Stacey Derosier, original music by Jeff Blumenkrantz, and sound by Quentin Chiappetta), as the disoriented Edgar succumbs to trances and staggers around the stage.
The captain holds out hope for an end to this toxic marriage: “If we can be patient,” he says, “death will come, and then, perhaps, life begins.” But the grim truth is that “the dance of death” is just another term for life itself.
The August Strindberg repertory productions of The Dance of Death and Mies Julie play through March 10 at Classic Stage Company (136 E. 13th St., between Third and Fourth Avenue). Performances are Wednesday through Sunday. For the repertory schedule, visit classicstage.org.
Midtown is getting a little bit greener this winter, as Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic novel Anne of Green Gables comes to life in an enchanting new version by Royal Family Productions. Adapted and directed by Chris Henry, Anne of Green Gables: Part I faithfully dramatizes Montgomery’s tale of 11-year-old orphan Anne Shirley’s new life on Canada’s Prince Edward Island in the late 19th century.
The title of Ray Yamanouchi’s new play suggests there is only one American tradition. Is it fireworks on the Fourth of July? Is it celebrating Thanksgiving? Or is it putting out flags on Memorial Day? The walls at the 13th Street Theater hint that Yamanouchi’s view is much darker. There are posters for shows like A Darkey Misunderstanding and the musical Big Minstrel Jubilee by William H. West (1853–1902) and one that cautions “Negroes Beware: Do Not Attend Communist Meetings,” along with a 19th-century advertisement about the Democratic Party (the face of a white-bearded man) and the Republican party (a black man with unruly hair). More modern flyers hang there too: a picture of Angela Davis with the words “Black Power” and a recent Black Lives Matter poster.
It’s surprising that Ah, Wilderness! doesn’t get done more often. Eugene O’Neill’s only full-length comedy—not, he later said, an autobiography, but a look back at the teen years he wished he’d had—the gentle two-acter is warmhearted, smart about intergenerational conflict, and extremely influential. It’s the template for every stage family comedy from You Can’t Take It With You to Morning’s at Seven and beyond, not to mention countless TV sitcoms, up to and including Modern Family. It rings with universal truths that are easy to identify with, and it’s not hard to stage.
Jordan Jaffe’s comedy-drama Whirlwind hinges on a hot topic: environmental activism. It’s also descriptive of the relationships at its center. Bethany Goodbridge (Annapurna Sriram) handles issues of environment, health and safety at Arrow Energy, a San Francisco firm that builds wind farms. Her boss, Cooper (Johnny Wu), is an arrogant corporate type who likes to brag that he has his own jet. He also has more than a businesslike eye on her. Christian Conn plays the man who brings the whirlwind into their lives and ruffles their feathers—an apt description, since he is irate that one of the company’s isolated wind farms is killing birds at a terrible rate.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), familial conflict, crucifixions and redemption are at the forefront of family conflict in Master of the Crossroads. Paul Calderon’s play starts off on an elevated note when Yolanda, played by Sarah Kate Jackson, storms into the home of her ex-brother-in-law, Jim-Bo (Obi Abili), to plead with him for help with her husband Cornbread (Nixon Cesar), an aggressive veteran who was deployed to Afghanistan. Cornbread has taken a man hostage whom he has mistakenly thinks is an Arab.
Cornbread exhibits severe symptoms of PTSD, and Cesar (despite a tendency to excessive loudness) captures a range of emotions that one can only imagine a person suffering from this disorder could feel. Cornbread has turned to alcohol and drugs to escape the hauntings in his mind and sees redemption or sacrifice as the only way to move forward. His deterioration is displayed when he explains to his brother that he firmly believes that he has captured an actual Arab:
You tell me he a Spanish Man but no Spanish done spill outta his mouth! Sand Nigga jibber’s what spilling out. Sand nigga jibber! And I know sand nigga jibber when I hear it! Heard it often ‘nuff when I was over widdim and they jibbered and jabbered it till it done near drove me insane, even when some of them jibbering and jabbering were “friendly,” pretended to be on our side. Like this little bugger fucker, couldn’t have been more than twelve if a day. One sec we showing him how to use a broom stick for a baseball bat and the next BOOM!! Done blew hisself and about half dozen of us away with an IED.
The theme of redemption through sacrifice is woven tightly throughout play. The characters have sacrificed their minds and well-being for the sake of their country. Cornbread’s condition is getting worse, and it’s obvious as he plans to “sacrifice” his prisoner. A plot twist occurs with the revelation that Jim-Bo is also suffering from PTSD, and the savior becomes more dangerous. He uses his faith as a source of comfort and a grounding mechanism. As a churchgoing man, Jim-Bo tells Yolanda that Cornbread is “Unwillin’ to understand, that he our Christ!” Abili brings enthusiasm and intensity to Jim-Bo, portraying a scary darkness that has lingered inside his character for who knows how long until he snaps.
His efforts to save the man his brother is holding captive are sidelined as he decides to cleanse the sins of his family through a sacrificial ceremony. Jim-Bo prepares by sawing wood, gathering nails, taking off his clothes, and locking up Cornbread, leading to a climactic, horrific scene as he tries to redeem his family from the demons inside their minds.
The set design by Calderon, who has also directed, is minimalistic, with key symbols displayed on the stage: the American flag, a statue resembling Jesus, and a wooden cross. The props are appropriately violent and intimidating. The lighting by Evan Louison works well with the encompassing theme of the play. It mimics the fog and anxiety associated with PTSD. The music and sounds, also by Louison, are at times terrifying and creepy while at other times meditative and ecclesiastical. With these components working harmoniously, the audience gets a glimpse of what the characters are struggling with day-to-day. Master of the Crossroads is harsh, dark and eerie to make a point about the poor mental health care that American veterans experience.
The Primitive Grace production of Master of the Crossroads plays through Feb. 9 at the Bridge Theater (at Shetler Studios, 244 West 54th St., between Seventh and Eighth Avenues) in Manhattan. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday. Tickets are available at primitivegrace.org. Note that this production contains nudity, racist language and graphic violence in an intimate setting.
When actors address audiences directly, they’re said to breach the stage’s “fourth wall.” In The Mortality Machine, it’s the audience that does the breaching, penetrating all parts of the playing space and performing assigned roles side-by-side with the professionals. In this two-hour drama—site-specific, immersive, and improvisatory—part of the mystery for the playgoer is who else has bought a ticket and who’s being paid to act.
Eclipses Group Theater will premiere Hercules: In Search of a Hero, a theater piece combining excerpts for Hercules and Alcestis, both by Euripides, along with original material. Using an exploratory, multidisciplinary approach, Eclipses presents Greek and non-Greek classical and modern plays in collaboration with artists of various ethnicities and cultures. Hercules contrasts the traditional male notion of heroism with a “feminine alternative.” It is conceived and directed by Ioanna Katsarou, translated by Demetri Bonaros, and has original compositions by Costas Baltazanis. The production will play from Jan. 24 to Feb. 10 at the Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand St.) as part of the @Abrons Series program. For tickets and more information, visit egtny.com.
Ghosts and demons are expected to rise up on Halloween, and the ones within the haunted house of Jack Neary’s twisted and brutal tragicomedy, Trick or Treat, do not disappoint. The walking dead linger on the staircase while the spirits of deceased relatives, as well as some long-buried secrets, emerge to effectively tear apart a family. Hints of betrayal, mental illness and physical violence pervade the air, so don’t even ask what happened in the basement. Not that Neary’s characters are wearing white sheets, bloody robes or devil horns. No, this is a far scarier and more tragic clan: a passive-aggressive, Irish-American, middle-class family in eastern Massachusetts.
Set on Halloween, the play’s first act builds to an earthquake of a revelation, while Act II is a series of aftershocks that cause sustained damage. That listing the specifics would mean unmasking all the fun is testament to the integrity of Neary’s nifty script. The past and present actions of each family member are so tightly interwoven that to mention a father’s long-ago instinctual defense of his young son is to divulge why his daughter would grow up to marry the man she did. Suffice it to say that this is a play that pits paternal protection against marital devotion, and measures the stark difference between preserving the family and preserving the family name.
When we first lay eyes on Johnny Moynihan, he is seemingly alone in a large, cluttered house, preparing to receive trick-or-treaters. But, in a sensitive and engrossing performance from Gordon Clapp, something is clearly wrong. A permanent frown mars Johnny’s face, and his bulky, shuffling body seems to slowly be crushing in on itself. When his daughter, Claire (Jenni Putney), comes to call, we get a hint of Johnny’s New England accent—“Park the car,” he tells her—and an inkling of his woes. His wife, Nancy (Kathy Manfre), a victim of early onset Alzheimer’s, has reached the stage of the disease where he can no longer properly look out for her.
As Johnny describes to Claire what he has been through in dealing with Nancy over the course of the day, it might seem that the viewer has been trapped in a very depressing play about a devastating illness. But, as Johnny divulges just how he treated his dear wife in the wake of being freaked out by her behavior, it becomes clear that he is not so kindly, even though he always hands out the full-sized candy bars to the neighborhood kids, and that Neary has more on his mind than just compassionate care.
Soon Johnny’s son, Teddy (David Mason), arrives and hears of his mother’s condition. The family tensions grow palpable as we learn that Teddy is in line to become the police chief of their small town, a position once held by Johnny’s father but which Johnny never achieved. Teddy, however, has a history of violence, and Claire’s husband, an editorialist for the local paper, is out to keep him from getting the promotion. As if the tension between the three were not heated enough, nosy neighbor Hannah (Kathy McCafferty) keeps dropping by to act as a catalyst for a series of blow-ups. That she is an ex-girlfriend of Teddy’s makes matters no less volatile. By the time all the domestic matters have been sorted out, with previously undisclosed allegiances revealed and exit strategies put into place, Johnny is left virtually alone to wallow in the tragic consequences of his decisions. His world view of what it means to honor and to keep, in sickness and in health, is radically altered.
Clapp’s powerhouse execution of a father with all the wrong dreams receives strong support from his co-stars. Though we know a lot about Teddy before he even enters, Mason’s flying off the handle and reaching for serenity make for an explosive mix. Putney, meanwhile, supplies the right blend of compassion and disgust as the beleaguered Claire, and McCafferty makes Hannah a believable interloper, unable to stay away even as things get worse every time she drops in.
Director Carol Dunne brings a masterly pacing to the proceedings, pulling focus toward important clues while navigating the audience through a patchwork of lies. Among the clutter of scenic designer Michael Ganio’s well-worn living room are baskets of toys that may be there for Johnny’s grandkids or for a much sadder reason. Meanwhile, a jack-o’-lantern, bearing a demonic smile, looks on approvingly from atop a bookshelf.
Trick or Treat runs through Feb. 24 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison avenues). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. To purchase tickets, call the box office at (646) 892-7999 or visit www.59e59.org.
Tyler Everett, the protagonist of Dan Ireland-Reeves’s compelling play Bleach, takes a utilitarian view of whoring. A recent recruit to the world’s oldest profession, Tyler (Eamon Yates) has figured out how, on any given night, to reap maximal rewards at the intersection of human sexuality’s demand and supply curves.
Sebastian Barry, the Irish playwright who made a theatrical splash with his 1995 play The Steward of Christendom, has since then become as renowned for his novels (The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, Days Without End, A Long Long Way) and only sporadically returned to the theater. On Blueberry Hill, a presentation of Origin’s 1st Irish Festival, is less a traditional play than two intertwined monologues—like The Pride of Parnell Street, a 2007 play from Barry’s hand that was presented here by the same company, Fishamble, or Brian Friel’s Faith Healer—but it is riveting.
Although inherently lacking the excitement of actors facing off in conflict, monologues in the right hands can be thrilling. Barry dresses his in poetic imagery that recalls the glories of J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. Indeed, the Christian name of Synge’s hero, Christy Mahon, has been borrowed for one of the two characters, cellmates and killers. Director Jim Culleton’s production puts Barry’s gift for storytelling on full display, as the author teases out their tragic history in bits and pieces and keeps the audience guessing at why and how they became cellmates, and whether there is any connection between them.
The first speaker is PJ (David Ganly), a plump man early in middle age who is in prison (Sabine Dargent provides the minimal set, bunk beds supported by a cylindrical metal frame) for a crime that may not quite have been one. He recalls his childhood and his struggling mother in the 1960s: “We hated the English but that didn’t mean we loved ourselves,” he says, and Ganly stammers slightly as PJ; he often has downcast eyes as he describes the events that brought him to prison, but then sin weighs particularly hard on him because he was a seminarian. He is a man whose soul trembles with guilt.
While in seminary, he made friends with a younger man, Peadar, “a perfectly normal young Irish boy except he was shining with beauty. … With an accent on him that would mash spuds.” They fell in love, but on an outing to a nearby island their lives take a horrific turn in a split second that leads to PJ’s incarceration.
Meanwhile, in Christy’s monologues, we learn of his hardscrabble life. The son of a tinker who was killed in a knife fight, Christy has been the mainstay of his family since he was young. He’s daring, or perhaps foolhardy but lucky, as he takes on operating construction machinery with which he has no experience:
And the big thing on a building site is, if they ask you can you do something, you always say yes, or I always did, and one time it was ‘Can you drive a dozer?’ and I said yes, sure I had the bit of practice on a pal’s motorcycle in Ireland….
The combination of life-threatening recklessness and comic ego proves winning in Niall Buggy’s performance. He is an angry, forceful man, but in 20 years he has had no contact with his wife or children. If PJ agonizes constantly over his fatal act, Christy accepts his punishment more stoically. But he has happy memories of meeting his wife at a dance where “On Blueberry Hill” was played and of their wedding:
[H]aving the feed at the Pierre Hotel, and us all coming out into the late twilight of a summer’s night, happy as larks with the skinful of beer and burnt chicken, oh yes, and the wide bay lying there before us like the bedclothes of God.
Both Ganly and Christy conjure up the others in their lives, the richness of their freedom, both in happiness and pain. Says Christy:
Mayhem. Anger. You can do anything with anger. I mean, the bit of the gospels that I really like, when PJ is reading to me, as he does sometimes in the night-times, is the time JC goes ape-shit over the moneylenders. Some of the holy bits go over my head, but that bit I understand. I understand it perfectly.
And they conjure a third character, the guard McAllister, who puts them in a cell together as a cruel joke. He never appears, but he’s a crucial component of the story, and Barry is a master storyteller—as are the two actors and their characters. As they draw toward the end of their lives, one feels sorrow at the loss of two good men, their crimes notwithstanding. It’s well worth the visit.
The Fishamble production of On Blueberry Hill runs through Feb. 3 as part of the Origins 1st Irish Festival at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call the box office at (646) 892-7999 from noon to 6 p.m. or visit 59e59.org.
Neil LaBute burst upon the New York theater scene 20 years ago with Bash, a trio of one-act plays. It is a form he frequently returns to, and for the fourth year in a row he is represented by an evening of three one-acts under the umbrella title, LaBute New Theater Festival. Anyone familiar with the playwright’s work knows that his plays often attempt to shock—or at the very least agitate—his audiences with provocative, you-can’t-say-that-in-public pronouncements and confessions. Seemingly ordinary and recognizable individuals give voice to amoral and dark thoughts, and a successful LaBute play prompts a fair amount of uncomfortable laughter and occasional squirming in one’s seat.