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A CurtainUp Review
A lot has been written and discussed about how significant a gift that Irish dramatic literature has been to the theater. Over the decades, we have become enamored by the somber brooding of Irish playwrights: Eugene O'Neill, the lyrical cadences of Brian Friel, the raucous wit of Brendan Behan, the bleak, illusive absurdities of Samuel Beckett, as well as the dark, comedic visions of the more contemporary London-born Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson. Somehow the name of Leonard (1926 - 2009) does not automatically spring to the fore, despite his having written over thirty plays, three of which opened on Broadway.
Da is portrayed by Paul O'Brien who appeared at the Irish Rep in The Weir and Man and Superman. He offers constant proof that the Irish temperament exists not only in the devilish glint of his eyes, but also in that pervading temperament that defines this lovable curmudgeon, dead though he may be in the play.
The play is not unfamiliar territory for the Irish Rep since they mounted a production in 1996 starring Brian Murray in the title role. While the play's setting in "Dublin May 1968 and times remembered" so is extremely verbose and sentimental, what makes it special is its Irishness and the way the richness of the humor becomes more captivating as it progresses.
Director Charlotte Moore has not been afraid to let the play speak for itself and in its own wonderfully over-stated way. Banshees and ghosts are quite common in Ireland so it isn't surprising that when Charlie (Ciaran O'Reilly) returns home for his father's funeral he is visited by apparitions of his past. Like so many of us, Charlie has attempted to rid himself of his roots and family ties as a successful London playwright who periodically sends money home but wants only a respectful but detached, relationship with his parents: his absurdly pro-Hitler father and an abrading, provincial mother.
Sitting alone in his father's kitchen, Charlie is perplexed as he is surrounded by his troubled memories. First, his old buddy Oliver (John Keating) pays a seemingly respectful condolence call, but as it turns out triggers within Charlie a series of resentful flashbacks of old ties and past follies. Charlie's Da intrudes and comically rekindles old annoyances. The flood of frustrating memories bring scenes of his mother's fearful response to his intellectual prowess, his former and first employer's uncompromising work ethic. The hostile attitude to him prove particularly painful.
The more delightful memories that spring to life are of himself as a young rascal, as invigoratingly played by Adam Petherbridge. One hilarious moment finds him attempting to seduce a young woman known as the Yellow Peril (Nicola Murphy). Since he doesn't look at the young woman, he mistakes her soft shoulder bag for her breast. Such rather wistful storytelling could easily become corny were it not for the artful way the playwright has fleshed out the memories so that each scene creates a fuller portrait of Da's mystifying personality. Thus Charlie's memories bring into deeper and clearer focus the aspects of his father's nature that both repelled him once and now are a part of himself as well.
The fact that O'Brien bellows and barks his disapprovals for the better part of the play doesn't detract from his funnily self-admiring portrayal. Both exasperating and stubborn, he repeats all the same mistakes he made in life such as burning his fingers on a tea pot. But in death, he can follow Charlie around, walk through walls and repeat all the tired, not-so-truisms to his increasingly frustrated son.
O'Reilly, a veteran with the Irish Rep and a superb actor, is an affecting Charlie who listens to the voices from his past even as he hopes to be set free from their unwelcomed visits. Sean Gormley is a model of stiff-necked autocratic rigidity as Drumm, Charlie's boss for thirteen unpleasant young-adulthood years. Keating, another Irish Rep regular, as the somewhat simple-minded Oliver, adds an interesting layer.
There is plenty about her unhappy marriage to Da to enrage the mother, as played by the excellent Fiana Toibin. Kristin Griffith has condescension down pat as Da's long time employer. As all this makes clear, this is a play with a host of sharply engraved images to delight us even as they serve to unnerve Charlie.
The cozy kitchen setting designed by James Morgan and the lighting by Michael Gotlieb nicely allows for the intervention of time and of other places. After thirty-eight years, Da remains a lucid dream of a play and this fine production re-affirms its place among endearing of contemporary Irish plays.
Irish dramatic literature has not only entertained and enriched theater audiences for centuries, but has sustained and nurtured itself through continual strife, upheaval, and pain. Once again praise is due the Irish Repertory Theatre for upholding the highest standards of the Irish tradition and, indeed, those incomparable temperaments.
Some Additional Comments by Elyse Sommer
I agree that "Irishness" has indeed been a gift to theater audiences for centuries. Their stories' unique blend of malarkey and blarney indeed makes for enduringly appealing theater.
Even loving parents often inflict wounds (generally the result of their own traumas) that haunt children into adulthood. Painful as this can be it serves as rich family drama fodder that is not the exclusive to the Irish. To wit, I didn't set out to prove my point when I booked the world premiere of contemporary American playwright Hallie Feiffer's I'm Gonna Pray For You So Hard for last Saturday afternoon and the Irish Rep's revival of Da that evening. Yet seeing both these plays on the same day underscores how the struggle of children to deal with the love-hate trauma that is so often part of the parent-child relationship.
The father who's an unshakable part of Charlie in Da appears in typical Irish fashion as an apparition, which makes Leonard's play more fanciful than Ms. Feiffer's very contemporary backstage drama. While that play was not without humor, it was realistically harrowing to watch. I was therefore glad that the evening play, though also about a difficult father, made for less tense viewing. While not completely without humor, I'm Gonna Pray. . . was a harrowing theatrical experience, making Da's whimsical story telling especially appealing. and a fine follow-up to the matinee.
Interestingly, my next day's booking of the Roundabout's production of a new version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into The Woods further underscored the timelessness of family dysfunction for theatrical story telling. Like the characters in Da, the storybook characters here manage to make troubled relationships delightfully and melodically watchable.
As it turned out, with the temporary lull in Broadway openings, my three-show weekend proved that the dysfunctional elements in families everywhere are the stuff of fine, and like last weekend's selections, memorable theater.