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

Tag: Irish Repertory Theatre

Review | The Burial At Thebes | By Seamus Heaney | From Sophocles’ Antigone | Directed by Charlotte Moore | Irish Repertory Theatre

… don’t bother …

Sophocles’ Antigone is among the greatest plays ever written, Seamus Heaney is a Nobel Prize winning poet, and Irish Repertory Theatre produces wonderful shows with outstanding actors.  How then did The Burial At Thebes turn out to be a  poor derivative of Antigone, with amateurish acting?

Since their usual theater is under renovation, Irish Rep produced this elsewhere but I don’t see that would explain this disappointing production.

The basic story line is here:  After the death of Oedipus, Creon has become King in ancient Thebes and Oedipus’ daughters, Antigone and Ismene, are living there. Oedipus’ son, Polynices, leads a futile attempt to overthrow King Creon and take over the city but Oedipus’ other son, Eteocles, fights to defend Creon and Thebes. The two brothers meet in battle and slay one another.   Eteocles, receives a hero’s burial but Creon decrees that the traitor, Polynices, shall receive no burial but be left exposed, carrion for the birds and dogs.  As when Achilles refused Hector burial in the Iliad, this is an ultimate indignity, a violation of Greek burial practices and a religious desecration.

Oedipus’ daughter Antigone, inspired by love for her brother and profound religious principle buries Polynices.  In Sophocles, she covers him with “handfuls of dry dust” and pours libations which suffice symbolically, but Heaney has the poor girl do some serious — though hard to visualize — digging.   Creon vows to execute Antigone for her insubordination.

In a breathtaking confrontation, Sophocles shows Creon arguing for the primacy of laws made by men – here his own arbitrary decrees – and the virtue of obedience for the valuable purpose of keeping order in cities.  Antigone, admitting she disobeyed his laws, claims she acted rightly according to higher, divine, eternal laws.  It’s a great dramatic argument but no one is persuaded, and the play marches on toward its excess-driven tragic conclusion.

Although the characters and their motivations are filled with ambiguities, the argument between Antigone and Creon has been interpreted as a confrontation between freedom and tyranny.  Antigone is often seen as a principled, inspirational beacon of liberation facing down a dictator.  This was understood tacitly, for example, when Jean Anouilh produced his adaptation of Antigone in Paris during World War, during the Nazi occupation of France (George Steiner takes up Anouilh’s play and other variations on the theme in his book, Antigones).  Heaney, here, relates the Antigone-Creon conflict to America’s entry into the Iraq war.  This is so forced it makes one impatient:  whatever one’s opinion of George Bush or the war in Iraq, there’s no analogy.

While several of the actors have impressive resumes, the overall sense of the acting is amateurish.  Actors whom I’ve seen do outstanding work in other plays, including at Irish Rep, are insufficient here, and the accents are all over the place.  Rod Brogan rises above the general level and is exciting as the Messenger who has the sorry task of bearing bad news.

The poetry is strongest in some lyrical passages where Heaney draws directly on Sophocles’ imagery but elsewhere it seems to lack imagination.  I heard the cliché “beyond the pale” used three times in referring to arrogant action, which felt like poetic fatigue.  Heaney truncates important aspects of Antigone, including the famous choral “ode to man,” as it’s often called, and draws others out too long.

The best thing that Heaney did here was to not call this play Antigone.   Still, I worry that people will see this and think they’ve seen Antigone.  They haven’t.

The Burial At Thebes plays at the DR2 Theatre near Manhattan’s Union Square through March 6, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

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 | Donnybrook! The Musical of the Movie The Quiet Man | Music and Lyrics by Johnny Burke | Book by Robert E. McEnroe | Directed by Charlotte Moore | Based on The Quiet Man, Short Story by Maurice Walsh | Irish Repertory Theatre

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

Review | Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman | Directed by David Staller | Irish Repertory Theatre / Gingold Theatrical Group

Man and Superman is a totally delightful evening of theater that lifts you from yourself with enjoyment and — thinking about it after — reminds you of what theater is all about.  It couldn’t be better.  It’s a romantic comedy as well as a play of ideas that spins off from the story of Don Juan, particularly the Don Giovanni of Mozart’s opera, though with a bit of Faust, and Milton’s Satan thrown in.  Shaw subtitled it A Comedy and a Philosophy.

With the death of her father, Ann Whitefield, an entrancing and feisty young woman, is placed in the hands of two male guardians (even though, in early 20th-century England, she has a mother) Jack, a young, wealthy, and wittily ironic iconoclast and author of The Revolutionist’s Handbook and Pocket Companion, and the older, stuffy, conventionally minded and reactionary Roebuck Ramsden.

The free thinker Jack and the old guard Ramsden agree on only one thing: that Ann should marry Octavius who adores her.  But she only toys with his infatuation, giving him the affectionate but romantically dismissive nickname, Ricky Ticky Tavy.  We — and the characters — catch on to a love triangle: Octavius loves Ann who loves Jack AND we can tell that Jack loves Ann, too, but he is so leary of being ensnared in marriage that he doesn’t recognize that he loves her … or at least, he’s the last to admit it.

There’s another pair of lovers, Violet, Octavius’ sister, secretly married to Hector, son of an American millionaire.  And there’s Straker, Jack’s car mechanic and chauffeur, representative of the proletariat — who has many of the really great lines, but don’t worry, there are plenty left over for everybody else.  This play is a feast of language.  No wonder Shaw compared himself to Shakespeare.

The whole crew goes driving in two cars, when cars are still a novelty, from England to Spain, all the way South to Granada. There, dislocated from their home base in England, the imagination opens to new vistas.

On the road, Jack and Tanner are held up for their car by the exotic, mysterious brigand, Mendoza: that night, falling asleep in the wilds of Mendoza’s desert, Jack dreams the great and famous scene of “Don Juan in Hell”.  Before our eyes, asleep on the desert floor, Jack rises, dressed in embroidered vest and bandeleras, knee ties and, finally, the plumed hat with the swooping brim of his own distant ancestor, Don Juan.  He’s now in hell, and a Faustian Mendoza, dark and dapper, has become in Jack’s dream the Devil in sleek dinner dress.  The two argue, words flowing bountifully, the great issues of human existence, relationships between men and women, capitalism and the exploitation of labor, human nature and life on earth, and the question of whether it’s better to spend eternity in heaven or in hell.  Like everything in this play drenched with ironic opposites, that’s a surprisingly tricky question.

When Ann, much to her own surprise, arrives in hell, her costume — Gypsy bodice and fluffy white bloomers — is as witty, expressive and eye-filling as Don Juan’s.  Ramsden — now the Statue, Ann’s father Il Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, drops by on a visit from heaven:  “I have my share of vanity,” he says, “for as a young man I was admired by women, and as a statue I’m praised by art critics.”

Which then is, actually, the better place to be?  Heaven seems boring, and Hell has turned out to be a pleasure palace.  No fire and brimstone here, the Devil’s a gentleman for whom “beauty is good to look at … music is good to hear … love is good to feel … and they are all good to think about and talk about.”   But, Don Juan retorts, “Here there is nothing but love and beauty. Ugh!”

Don Juan is a reformer, a prophet burdened by the evils and injustices of the world and seized by a purpose beyond himself — to improve the world.  As a Philosophic man, he seeks heaven where he can contemplate the Life Force and affect things for the better.   How is not clear but one thing’s for sure: “The philosopher is Nature’s pilot,” he says … “ to be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer.”

To which the Devil plays a really top card in the deck — the freedom card:  “I prefer to be my own master and not the tool of any blundering universal force.”

Women seek improvement in their biologically driven way, through propagation that may lead to a superman:  thus they are central to the Life Force and Ann, as things turn out, is no exception.  Watch out, Jack.

It’s hard to remember a play so perfectly cast as this one. The acting is universally superb.  Max Gordon Moore plays Jack with manly strength combined with scampish vigor of a stand-up comic that fully expresses his iconoclastic take on absolutely everything.  Janie Brookshire is tough and charming as the Life Force at work.

Jonathan Hammond is irresistible as the seductive Mendoza, a cynical realist except that romantic love drives this worldly sophisticate to write dreadful poetry.

As Octavius, Will Bradley stops at exactly the right place short of camp in expressing his idealizing romantic love, not man enough for Anne but man enough to carry an eternally broken heart.

Brian Murray fascinates as the rigid but not heartless Ramsden, dense but not a fool;  one believes everything this wonderful actor does and at one and the same time marvels at how he does it.

Laurie Kennedy as Mrs. Whitefield, Paul O’Brien as Malone, Margaret Loesser Robinson as Violet, Brian Sgambati as Straker, and Zachary Spicer as Hector are all amusing, touching, and true to their parts.   That these highly individualized characters work together so well as an ensemble is surely due to the vision of the Director, David Staller.

So who wins the heaven vs. hell argument between Don Juan and the Devil?  As the Devil says, “… men get tired of everything, of heaven no less than of hell … ”  But you won’t get tired of this play!  Man and Superman takes ones breath away with its succinct and knowing brilliance, and with the magic of that other world that Jack discovers when he dreams his dream.

Man and Superman plays at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through June 17, 2012 EXTENDED through July 1st!

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.

Review | Candida by George Bernard Shaw | Directed and Designed by Tony Walton | Irish Repertory Theatre

I love Shaw and the Irish Repertory Theatre does plays wonderfully so I was keenly looking forward to Candida. It turned out to be very dull.  Why?  The play or the production?

The Play: The time is 1894.  Candida is a married woman at the apex of a love triangle.  Marchbanks, a near-to-vagabond young poet, has romantic visions of the world and of their love.  Her husband, Morrell, also a man of words, is a diligent, charismatic minister constantly lecturing to do-good organizations, including Shaw’s Fabian Society.  She loves her husband but is drawn to Marchbanks.  Each man claims that Candida is truly his.  Whose is she?

Marchbanks’ claim to Candida is that he “understands” her in a poetic sense that’s never really clear.  Morrell’s supposedly more pedestrian claim is that he loves her, she agreed to marry him, he is in fact her husband and, furthermore, he protects and provides for her.  But who does Candida believe she belongs to?  The climax of the play is when she places herself on auction, giving each man a chance to make his claim, ultimately demonstrating that she is not his or his — she’s her own person.

We can more or less accept Marchbanks as a young swain in love with an older woman, and Morrell as an upstanding man in the world in love with his own wife, but there are too many inconsistencies and questions around Candida to allow her to come across as a particularly interesting or fully realized character.  She’s just come in from a vacation but claims that the household is short of money, and something’s said about her taking care of children but there are no children in the play.  She does or does not resent having the help the maid peel onions:  which is it?  We’re told that she has nice hair and a good figure but other than that, there’s nothing special about her so we’re left with each of these men being in love with her just because people fall in love.

What does she do all day anyhow beside fluff the pillows, when she’s not mothering Marchbanks, whose poetry doesn’t interest her?  It’s said that Shaw wrote this play in response to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in which, at the end, Nora leaves her husband.  Candida stays with her husband, in some newly defined relationship we are to understand, but we don’t see it in the play.  Some things have been said, e.g., she has in the past been the one to put off the creditors when the family’s short of money while he gets credit for munificence when they pay up.  She runs interference for him.  Are we supposed to think that from now on he’ll face off the creditors?  And that’s a good thing?  She’ll have even less to do in the outside world.

Or does she get to pay the bills?  That’s not much fun.

And what happened to Shavian wit in Candida?  There are a couple of cracks about people liking to hear what ministers tell them to do and then not doing it, and that’s about it.

The Production: The set was predictable, a cluttered, slightly disorderly late 19th Century British middle class household that makes you sneeze just to look at it.  In spite of a distinguished cast, the acting didn’t serve the play.  Perhaps an actress with great style and power — Katharine Cornell played Candida — could have overridden the weaknesses in the characterization, but Melissa Errico ‘s Candida is all on the surface — instead of playing the part, she plays herself playing a type of part she’s done a number of times before.  Ciaran O’Reilly, another highly accomplished actor with an impressive resume, looks and acts scruffy and vague instead of a dynamic minister everyone including Candida falls in love with.  Sam Underwood’s irritating, clickety-clack reading of his lines as Marchbanks makes it impossible to understand Candida’s attraction to him.  Only the smaller parts came alive, and Xanthe Elbrick is particularly humorous and believable as the minister’s typist.

Candida is sometimes said to be more human and psychological than Shaw’s more “talky” plays of ideas.  If so, I say bring back the talky ones!  Like the hilarious and totally enjoyable Misalliance at the Pearl Theatre, reviewed here in December.

Candida plays at the Irish Repertory Theatre in NYC’s Chelsea through April 18.

Review | Aristocrats by Brian Friel | Directed by Charlotte Moore | Irish Repertory Theatre

… family reunions …

Aristocrats, about a far flung family of O’Donnells converging on the crumbling family mansion in Northern Ireland for a wedding, is wordy and pedestrian — with the exception of one outstanding characterization.

Claire, once a promising pianist, is finally getting married to a much older local commoner with children to raise.  Not surprisingly, she’s depressed, and her alcoholic sister Alice who’s come up from London is not likely to cheer her up.  Their brother Casimir has flow in from Germany, leaving behind a fictitious wife and children — invented cover-ups for his homosexuality and low-level job.

Judith, the third sister, is trapped in the drudgery of tending to the decaying mansion and those who’ve stayed home, Claire, and a sick father whom we know through his domineering and delusional voice booming on the intercom from upstairs, helping us understand why the mother, an actress, committed suicide to escape.  An elderly uncle who wanders around with a passive/aggressive silence adds nothing to the dramatic action, although he’s intended to be part of an unconvincing renewal at the end.

As in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, with its similar theme, the aristocrats are has-beens and all vitality is with the commoners, Eamon who married Alice (though he loved Judith, but he’s making a reasonable best of it), and the erstwhile chauffeur, now a successful business man, Willie Driver, who would marry Judith but is reluctant to take on her illegitimate child sent by the father to the orphanage.

Also on hand is an American taking notes on the O’Donnells as a case study in Irish Catholic aristocracy;  maybe he was intended as a scientific-minded foil to a more poetic Irish spirit but this is never developed:  with the uncle, that makes two extraneous characters.

The set, combining a built set, tangible chairs and tables, etc., and photography conveys the former grandeur and current struggles of the aristocrats at home.  The directing is slow-paced.  The acting is on a professional high level … BUT …

If you’re looking for a reason to see this play, John Keating’s evasions as Casimir, the failed law student, are witty, touching, and brilliantly timed.  He has the gift of being hilarious as a character while always, totally, remaining in character.  In an Iceman Cometh moment when his pipe dream is shattered, one sees fully the desperate loss and almost as fast the recovery of the fantasy that allows him to live.  This is a wonderful tour de force of characterization.

It seems natural that in an era of centrifugal spread of families, the theme of distant family members honing in on the ancestral home for a rite of passage has become popular.  It’s a promising motif for expansive studies of character and for revealing the way truths from the past remain active in the present.  Sometimes it works that way, as in Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County, or the current film Rachel Getting Married, but it can also verge on soap opera as in Horton Foote’s Dividing the Inheritance (reviewed below).  In Aristocrats, the revelations are immediately understood or are too familiar.

Aristocrats plays at the Irish Repertory Theatre in East Chelsea, NYC, through March 8.

Review | Ten Blocks On The Camino Real by Tennessee Williams | Directed by David Herskovitz | Target Margin Theater

The original Camino Real, first produced on Broadway under Elia Kazan’s direction in 1953, took up the stories of several individuals grouped around Camino Real, pronounced real as in reallyreal in Target Margin’s brilliant production.  Following an early version of the play, David Herskovitz chooses to focus on one:  Kilroy, a former light-weight boxing champion, now an itinerant American who lands in the plaza of a patently violent Mexican town at fiesta time.  His pesos are stolen fast, nor do we have much hope that he’ll hang on to the mementos of the past before he was a has-been, a champion’s belt around his waist and the golden gloves looped over his shoulders.

But will he hold on to his life?

He has a life-threatening enlarged heart which has ruled out boxing and sex, forcing him to abandon a promising career and, out of compassion (poetically, large heart), to leave a wife he loves so as not to disappoint or burden her.  For Kilroy, sexual abstinence is not only physically wise but spiritually essential — it’s the link of loyalty to the woman he loves.  But his arrival coincides with the festal night when the Gypsy’s daughter becomes a virgin once again, and picks her man.  This time it’s Kilroy.  He resists, and ultimately succumbs to her seduction, while her mother relieves him of the last ten bucks from sale of his mementos.  The ending, where the realms of reality and yearning share the stage, worlds apart but back to back, is sublime.

The production has a satisfying pop-comic-nostalgic visual unity, something like Red Grooms would cast over a Mexican plaza.  The steady golden light casts an appealing glow over the set, suggestive rather than constructed, and the wonderful actors, Satya Bhabha as Kilroy, Purva Bedi as Esmeralda and others, Curt Hostetter as Gutman and others, McKenna Kerrigan as Marguerite Gautier and others, Raphael Nash Thompson as Jacques Casanova and others, with Dara Seitzman as the Guitar player weaving her way Siren-like among the characters and through the scenes.  I found myself looking for an indication of the heroic sculpture that would be in the middle of a Mexican plaza.  The costumes and props are witty and touching:  the helmet made of vegetable steamer baskets wrought into the instantly recognizable shape of Don Quixote‘s deserves a place in the costume hall of fame.

I never saw the full Camino Real but I doubt it could be more powerful than this one that David Herskovitz has honed down to a single focus, all the more likely since the original production seemed at the time confusing and disparate.  Target Margin comes off two years of immersion in classical works; that experience, and Herskovitz’ deep knowledge of the classics, must lie behind the remarkable unifying thrust brought to this production of a modern playwright.  Aristotle’s unities of action, time and place are at work here on Camino Real — the plaza rather than the full ten blocks.  Herskovitz has shaped the play in a way that if anything intensifies the lyrical poetry of Tennessee Williams’ vision of human frailty.  This production is a rare theatrical opportunity.

Target Margin’s Ten Blocks on the Camino Real plays at the Ohio Theater, 66 Wooster Street in SoHo, January 14 through January 31.

Nearby restaurant favorite: Via dei Mille, 357 West Broadway

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