by Conor McPherson
directed by Ciarán O’Reilly
starring Billy Carter, Peter Maloney & James Russell
September 24th- November 16th, 2014
Irish Repertory Theatre
at the DR2 Theatre in Union Square
Cast: (in order of appearance)
Kevin – James Russell
Dermot – Billy Carter
Joe – Peter Maloney
Director, Ciarán O’Reilly
Set Design, Charlie Corcoran
Costume Design, Linda Fisher
Lighting Design, Michael Gottlieb
Sound Design, M. Florian Staab
Original Music, Ryan Rumery
Dialect Coach, Stephen Gabis
Production Stage Manager, Pamela Brusoski
Assistant Stage Manager, Rebecca C. Monroe
There seemed something symbolic in the front doors and lobby of the DR2 Theatre, temporary home of the Irish Repertory Theatre. As one walks in off the street, one finds a shallow vestibule followed by another shallow space occupied by the ticket office and the concession stand, liberally stocked with alcohol, as it should be in an Irish theater, after two or three steps, a small waiting room, then down a short black corridor into the auditorium. I don’t think I’ve had quite that sense of openness and accessibility before in entering a theater. Irish theater is everywhere, and, apart from being a powerful force simply on the quality and scope of the work that’s being done, it is open and accessible to all. New York continues to be in the thrall of the London stage, as always, and certainly not for the worse, but when London comes to these shores, as in last winter’s visit of the Globe company, the event is highly publicized, tickets are expensive and hard to get, and the Broadway theaters claustrophobic, as New Yorkers crowd in to contemplate Shakespeare and his heirs as if it were the theatrical equivalent of the Crown Jewels. It seems like two different worlds.
Irish theater flourishes in a perfectly natural way in the New World, as the Irish Rep’s dandy revival of Conor McPherson’s Port Authority amply demonstrates. It seems not so important that this production was planned and executed in New York for an audience of New Yorkers, which of course includes a healthy measure of visiting and resident Irish, although, in Ireland, a travelling production of Frank McGuinness’ The Factory Girls in Derry dialect, which I saw a year and a half ago, put its Limerick audience into close listening mode and would need supertitles over here. The way in which this local Derry production travelled around Ireland was again a sign of the willing availability of Irish theater. The people I was staying with well out into the countryside love their theater and follow it closely. Local productions in Ireland go national very easily through these tours, and they attract large, informed audiences. After that it’s just a step across the Atlantic.
The Factory Girls, which premiered in 1982, is by now a classic, one of the harbingers of our present flourishing of Irish Theater, and now Port Authority, of 2001, has its own historical gravitas. In it McPherson chose to show us three characters, male, of different generations: Kevin, a youth, perhaps eighteen or so, going off to the city to get started in life, independent of his parents; next Dermot, a businessman, perhaps around thirty-five or so, who finds himself miraculously, almost, in a very classy job as a financial manager for some high-profile clients in the entertainment industry; and finally Joe, a man from Dermot’s parents’ generation, whose world revolves around solid Irish values: marriage, family, and property…but he too is compromised, in a strange, rather poetic way, in contrast to the bestial inclinations of the younger men. The Church plays a small role, mostly part of the background, even in Joe’s life, which nearing its end, unfolds in a Roman Catholic retirement home. He has lived life with restraint, decorum, and responsibility, absent in the younger men’s relationship with alcohol and their libido, and that is his tragedy.
Port Authority consists of these three monologues, intertwined solo performances which are interrelated only in coincident ways, at least as far as the details of the characters’ lives go. As the play begins, we hear the sound of the surf rolling against the strand, the same sound that introduced a recent performance of Samuel Beckett’s Embers at BAM. The narratives take up their threads and succeed one another in just that way, as if the lives of these three men of succeeding generations were random glimpses of an infinite human collective. There is not a hint of interruption, as one of the subjects stands or sits in a prominent place on stage to take up his story after the other comes to a rest. These wave-like rhythms contribute to the unity of play, which could easily have fallen apart into three solo performances.
However, in spite of the generational and social differences, there is one essential thing Kevin, Dermot, and Joe have in common, and that is their frustration in love, Kevin and Joe have become fixated on unavailable women, and Joe at least is impaired by it for his entire life. Kevin may be marked as well. In first weeks of his new job Dermot is invited to two corporate social events. Wives are invited, but Dermot leaves his at home, as if he is ashamed of her, and she knows it. At both, he relieves his social anxiety with alcohol, to the point of extreme drunkenness, when he becomes fixated on his boss’s wife’s décolleté and other female attractions that appear around him. In the end, after his rise in business and society rapidly crumbles, he learns what attracted her to him and why she married him…let’s say, to avoid a spoiler, that it was not social climbing. Some might say that she was motivated by good old-fashioned human compassion and a mothering nature. Others might say that she’s a compulsive martyr. Joe, belonging to a generation already in a home for the aged, also is well-girt with traditional Irish values, but this cannot protect him against his well-muffled, but irresistible attraction to a neighbor’s wife, all the more indelible, because he did nothing about it. Nonetheless he can still invoke the good night’s sleep of a Christian, however roiled his peace of mind may have been over the years.
The effect of McPherson’s play is poetic, although his diction is the robust prose of the late twentieth-century Irish male, with the profanity, hardly used by the eldest, becoming increasingly baroque in succeeding generations. Kevin’s daily life, his reality, can’t be described without the most earthy vernacular for human effluvia, any more than Dermot’s, although with a perhaps less lively vocabulary. Joe rarely indulges in profanity. His language is straightforward and as honest as his psychological dilemma with allow. The others, when not resorting to expletives, share his directness. Curiously this plain language acquired a poetic force in McPherson’s hands. Similarly the stories themselves are curiously indeterminate. If you turn them around in your mind as the play proceeds, each story, or even the entire fabric, seems that it could be read on a page as a short story, although with less power. As in a Greek tragedy, we sense what is going to happen, if we don’t know it already, but we are also in suspense as to how it will unfold. In this way, McPherson keeps us fascinated with traditional dramatic powers.
The play could perhaps even survive a mediocre performance, but in this case Ciarán O’Reilly’s sense of timing, atmosphere, and nuance, as a director, and the performances of the three outstanding actors elevated the experience even further. One could say that one could go to see actors like James Russell, Billy Carter, and Peter Maloney in a terrible play and still emerge rewarded and satisfied after a brilliant evening of theater. Russell played Kevin with an explosive boyish energy, never destructive, except in thwarting himself, but joyful in recreating the fun of his best moments in his Dublin rooming house, living across the hall from a girl who’s going with another, and pained in his recollection of the missed opportunities and humiliations. Russell’s speech and body language lived in Kevin’s impulsiveness. Billy Carter, who distinguished himself in a colorful, engrossing performance in Trevor Nunn’s splendid production of Beckett’s All That Fall, which visited the 59E59 Theatres last autumn. On stage his character, Dermot, stood in the center. Loud and brash, he took full control of his space, as he drove full throttle, bumping and rolling, through his tale. Carter’s acting was rich, varied, and nuanced, giving just the right level and tone to each moment, and there were many, all psychically different. Peter Maloney is a great Irish-American professional with an admirable succession of important roles behind him. He had the most difficult role of all, because his character’s life was so consistently drab, not that the others, made lively by binges and flirtations, were any less ordinary. Maloney’s mastery of timing, pauses, empty spaces, simply doing nothing—one of the consummate skills in an actor’s toolkit—is as finely perfected as his use of vocal color and language. His acting was fulfilled in the naturalness and credibility of his work, but one could also reflect and admire his technique for its own sake.
Port Authority stands out in the rich field of offerings in Irish theater before us this fall in New York. You might just turn in off East 15th Street on an impulse and find yourself in front of the ticket office, as your hand reaches for your pocket, and you might just as well find that the show is sold out. Don’t let it pass you by.