The world doesn’t need this musical. Set in a fictional Irish village, Innisfree, in the 1920’s, it’s about the “cute Irish,” and their quaint ways including the great fun of settling conflicts with a brutal, free-for-all fight — a “donnybrook.”
The central idea, from Maurice Walsh’s 1933 Saturday Evening Post short story, is interesting — an Irish-American boxer, having killed a man and determined never to fight again, returns to his Irish village where he’s forced into a fight mandated by custom (the “donnybrook”) in order to uphold the honor of his village bride.
Sean, arriving in town, immediately falls in love with the feisty Mary Kate who immediately falls in love with him. But Sean angers her brother, Will, by topping his bid for some land, so Will tries to prevent the marriage and –when it does take place through some chicanery — withholds Ellen’s dowry. Sean doesn’t care about the money but — Irish custom — the dowry is bottom line, because it represents her honor. When Sean refuses to fight Will for the withheld dowry, Mary Kate, with an implausible lack of interest in her beloved’s state of mind about fighting, resorts to sexual blackmail, refusing to consummate the marriage. Through the machinations of a subplot things work out but not before there’s a — yes! — donnybrook, where Sean manages not to kill anybody including his wife’s brother — that would have been a problem — but the outcome is never in doubt, and we’re not really worried about this or anything in this show, in which the stereotype characters don’t engage ones concern.
The cast doesn’t have much to work with in these trite characters, although there are flashes of dramatic tension in James Barbour ‘s performance as the American boxer, particularly when he’s singing, but the show seems too small for him.
The songs and music, some traditional and others written for the show, are largely predictable although a few, such as “But Beautiful,” have more character and are familiar — the musical had a short run on Broadway in 1961. The song “The Loveable Irish,” with its refrain “I hate the Irish,” is offensive; Sean lists everything he finds wrong with the Irish until, at the end, he sings “but I’m Irish, too” as if that makes it OK to pour out so many negative stereotypes on a group of people, but it doesn’t.
Donnybrook! plays at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through March 31. Extended through April 28th