Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Ciaran O’Reilly

Review | Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey | Directed by Charlotte Moore | Irish Repertory Theatre

Time:  September, 1922 – the height of the Irish Civil War
Place:  The two-room tenement apartment of the Boyle family in Dublin

What an abundant play unfolds, perfectly acted and beautifully produced by the Irish Repertory Theatre!

Only one in the Boyle family is earning a living, Juno, the mother.  Daughter Mary’s out on strike.  Son Johnny is severely wounded in fighting for Irish independence and half-crazed fearing retribution for betraying an Irish Republican Army comrad who lived in this same building.  And the father, “Captain” Jack, Juno’s preening paycock of a husband, is a hard drinking former merchant seaman, who runs off to the pub with his drinking “butty” Joxer even when a job comes walking in the door.

So money’s very short, when an English solicitor, Mr. Bentham, arrives with the news that Jack is about to receive a substantial inheritance.  Anticipating the windfall, the Boyles purchase handsome new furniture on credit.  And — icing on the cake — the handsome and professional Mr. Bentham is in love with beautiful Mary — or so it seems.  The Boyle’s stand to rise upward in the world on all counts.  It’s not giving too much away to say that things don’t work out that way.

In an idyllic interlude, Mary and a neighbor Maisie Madigan sing at the celebratory party at the Boyle’s apartment, a moment of joy, though with a portent:  a funeral is underway at the same time for the IRA comrade Johnny betrayed.  Life and death cling to one another in this play like two lovers dancing.

Among this outstanding cast, J. Smith-Cameron is strong yet tender as Juno, the mother who keeps things going at a time “the centre cannot hold,” as W. B. Yeats wrote in The Second Coming (Yeats was Juno and the Paycock’s original producer in 1924 at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin).  O’Casey’s language is in itself highly poetic and as Jack Boyle, Ciaran O’Reilly is particularly effective in bringing out the poetry O’Casey finds in the natural speach in the Irish dialect.

Mary Mallen as the young Mary is principled, warmly feminine, and in love with plenty of good reasons, which don’t always take you where you want to go. Terry Donnelly is a delightfully vibrant life-of-the-party as the neighbor Maisie Madigan.  And an absolute favorite — simply fascinating to watch — is John Keating as Joxer Daly, Jack Boyle’s go-along-with-the-flow and duplicitous drinking partner.  In a play of strong characterizations, his goes farthest beyond type into unforgettable and irresistible idiosyncracy.

Populated by richly drawn characters, Juno and the Paycock moves at a rollicking and yet lifelike pace between loyalty and betrayal, rapture and despair, lofty idealism and down-to-earth reality.  I’m eager to see the other plays of O’Casey’s: Dublin Trilogy, Shadow of a Gunman, and The Plough and the Stars, but “meanwhile” I’m grateful to Irish Repertory Theatre for this exciting and fulfilling production.

Juno and the Paycock  plays at Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan’s Chelsea through December 29th, 2013. Extended through January 26, 2013.

Review | Beyond the Horizon by Eugene O’Neill | Directed by Ciaran O’Reilly | Irish Repertory Theatre

While watching Beyond the Horizon, I was often gripped by the strong conflicts in individual scenes.  Yet, the play came across as less than the sum of the parts.

O’Neill won the Pulitzer Prize in 1920 for this, his first full-length play (what a personal thrill that must have been!).  The focus on a low class family — farmers brought to struggle to hold on to the farm — the use of American vernacular, and the laying bare of brutal competition within what seems on the surface a wholesome American farm family must have been electrifying at the time.   Without these issues of innovation, today the play has less going for it.

Two brothers love the same girl.  Like his father, the older, Andrew, is a farmer through and through — and an excellent manager.  Rob is his opposite, a poetic dreamer, always with book in hand, who longs to travel the world and has no interest or aptitude for farming.  Both love Ruth, the girl next door.  Rob’s love is unspoken — until the eve of his departure as a sailor on a ship that will take him to all the exotic places he’s been dreaming about.

At that fraught last moment, Ruth seductively draws out of Rob his confession of love and, pouncing on his admission, admits she loves him too, and doesn’t love Andrew who’s been expecting to marry her all along.  The upheaval in the family is huge and the upshot is that nobody does what he’s supposed to do:  Andrew the farmer, filled with bitter, jealous rage, goes to sea while Rob the dreamer of far away places, stays home to marry Ruth and work the farm with his aging father.

Only Rob isn’t very good as a farmer.  He has no aptitude for managing, he’s on the frail side, and anyhow, he’d rather be reading his book, so when the father dies, Rob is left alone to preside fitfully over the slippage into failure of a once prosperous farm.

Rob’s increasingly embittered wife, now a frazzled mother, imagines that Andrew will return to set the farm aright and, assuming Andrew still loves her, will take her over as well.  Andrew does return as a successful man with money in his pocket and big plans for grain deals in Argentina — and no plans for her.  He’s off with the next ship to Argentina.

At the play’s heart are the ways these two very different brothers respond to their true, inner selves.  Rob gives in to his inner nature, unwilling or incapable of transcending it, and so failing in his responsibilities and precipitating tragedy.  Andrew, in contrast, violates his inner nature:  he goes to sea when he should farm;  he becomes a commodities speculator, not growing the food he was born to grow, but growing money, working with “paper” instead of “grain”.   Rob is lost.  There is the possibility that in the tragic aftermath of the play, the immensely able Andrew will regain his true self, and find his way home.

It strikes me as characteristically American that while there are dangers both in giving in too fully to inner nature, and in violating it, competence can pull you through — even spiritually.

It’s interesting to think of O’Neill juggling the parallels and oppositions between Rob and Andrew, but in the play, these contrasts in “inner nature” come across as simplistic.  Of the two, Andrew’s story is the most interesting, but we hear what happens to him indirectly, while we live through life with Rob.  Also, Act II has so many reversals, leave takings, homecomings, and a very lengthy death that it becomes tiresome.  For these reasons, the play as a whole has less staying power in my mind than some of the individual scenes with fiery conflicts of wills.

Part of the reason also is that the play is not well cast.  The actors are not exciting nor convincing, though they work intensely at their characterizations.  There are exceptions among the smaller parts:  David Sitler brings great power to his role as the stern, rigid father in the scene in which he learns that Andrew will be the sea farer and Rob will stay home —  for me the most memorable in the play.  (Too bad he dies and we don’t see more of him.)  Aimee Laurence is touchingly natural as Rob and Ruth’s little girl, caught between an embittered mother and the incompetent father she adores.  Patricia Conolly is amusing as Ruth’s wheel-chair bound mother, the stubbornly healthy invalid, although her patrician speech is out of place.  Although O’Neill intended a naturalistic vernacular, the varied accents among the actors are disunifying, making the characters hard to accept as part of a small, isolated early 20th-century Massachusetts community.  Rob and Andrew are so disparate in all ways, quite aside from the contrasting personalities, that it’s hard to believe they are brothers.

Beyond the Horizon plays at Irish Repertory Theater on Manhattan’s West Side through April 15.

Review | Banished Children of Eve by Kelly Younger | Adapted from the Novel by Peter Quinn | Directed by Ciaran O’Reilly | World Premier | Irish Repertory Theatre

… only four days …

This is an important play about the effects on individual lives of the Civil War draft riots in New York City.  Since $300 would get you out of serving, it was easy enough to see the draft hit poor men unfairly, stimulating poor vs. rich antagonisms which, however, fast turned racial — setting poor Whites against Blacks.  During four days in July 1863, a Black man, woman or child could not walk the streets in safety or hide in safety, and many were murdered.  In  this play, the immigrant Irish represent the poor side of that equation.

The already beleaguered lives of a tiny acting troupe, currently playing a minstrel version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, are sent into spinning crisis by the violent riots.  Eliza, of mixed race, who’s been tolerated on stage, albeit with a feigned “Cuban” identity, is now threatened with death, as is the Black orphan she and her co-actor and lover, the Irish Jack Mulcahey, have taken in as their own and who’s learning the business.  Cohabiting with a Black woman, protecting a Black child — the livelihood and life of heavy drinking and deeply loving Jack is also at risk.

Their paths cross with Graeme Malcolm, a crook who involves Jimmy Dunnne, and Amanda, the Irish maid who has the keys, in a break-in theft of a rich man’s brownstone, plunging these young people into another kind of danger.

How are they all going to make it through?  Backstage at the theater is no longer safe.  Like Eliza crossing the ice, most of them cross the city to the tolerant-spirited artists’ hotel where Eliza and Jack stay, an uncertain refuge, made briefly sweet by an itinerant Stephen Foster, played with subtle feeling by Malcolm Gets, who, drinking too much, and near the end of his life, sings and plays his last and great song on the piano, “Beautiful Dreamer”.  This fragile respite is broken when Malcolm discovers this mixed bag of Blacks and Whites at the hotel.  How will he use for his own crooked purposes what he knows about their location and relationships?  In the worst way possible.  Throughout the play one empathizes with the characters:  if only you can stay alive until this wave of rioting passes you’ll be OK.   If only.  Not everyone does.

And speaking of Uncle Tom’s Cabin …  in the wonderful play-within-a-play, the anguish and grace Amber Gray brings to Eliza’s flight across the ice, and David Lansbury’s moving passion in George’s plea — and encomium to freedom — make one want to see that play, too (the most often-produced play of the 19th Century;  I’ve seen Uncle Tom’s Cabin only once in the Mint Theater’s unforgettably fine production).   Patrice Johnson plays the Black fishmonger, Euphemia Blanchard, with a fascinating combination of knowingness, violence and musicality in her African/Caribbean patois, though I couldn’t always understand her.  Christopher Borger is touching and versatile as Squirt, the street toughened but tender boy Eliza and Jack love as their own child.

History comes alive in the powerful, magnificently acted and beautifully designed Banished Children of Eve.  Its second act happens too fast, I’d have liked a fuller resolution, but this fine play reminds one of what theater really can be.  See it.

Banished Children of Eve plays at the Irish Repertory Theater in NYC’s Chelsea district through December 5th.

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