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A CurtainUp Review
The Lepers of Baile Baiste!

Look at you Mr. Judgmental. Comin' back here with your uppity I'm better than anyone else attitude. Stealing statues to instigate. Bringin' up dirt that doesn't need risin'. So you can be satisfied. But you're not, you want to drag us all down with ya coz you're just like the rest of us. But worse, coz you pretend you're not.
---Laddeen to Daithi whose return to town after a 2-year absence stirs up painful buried memories going back twenty years when the men gathered in the town's dingy bar were schoolboys.
You need only open your daily newspaper to read about yet another case illustrating the long-ranging effects on a victim of abuse by pedophile priests. The Lepers of Baile Baiste which is currently being given a brief Off-Broadway production, dramatizes the shadow cast by one such priest on the lives of the eleven-year-old boys who were unlucky enough to be in his classroom during his year-long reign of terror. It could be torn right out of the headlines -- especially the headlines in Boston, the American capital of clerical abuse scandal and the city Irish born playwright Ronan Noone now calls home. But Boston is hardly the only American city where the Catholic Church's dirty linens have been publicly and painfully aired and the clerical hypocrisy involving the abuse problem is not an American phenomenon.

By setting Lepers in a typically dour Irish town, Noone not only tears away the scabs still festering beneath abuse inflicted wounds of a group of young men, but makes the issue of improperly handled clerical misconduct a symbol for a country with a long history of relying on hypocritical sermonizing, platitudes and whiskey to deal with economic hardship and emotional problems.

Like Martin McDonagh, Noone is something of a young wunderkind who started his playwriting career ambitiously and with a bang -- The Lepers of Baile Baiste is the initial play of a trilogy and its finely detailed characterizations and gritty dialogue brought him the National Student Playwriting Award and immediate acclaim and productions. As with Shakespeare, the Irish rhythms and vocabulary of playwrights like Noone and McDonagh call for expert interpreters. Happily, the cast in the current production is more than up to the task. They are also fine actors who clearly define each character's personality within the framework of the dreary and often cruel bar room culture where years of tensions finally explode.

The play has elements of O'Neill's Ice Man Cometh, with the regulars of Kellog's (Zachary Springer) bar wandering in and out one by one, the ties that bind them and the traits that distinguish them from one another revealed bit by bit. The four men whose often cruel camaraderie reveals the childhood trauma which affects all of them, include a classic O'Neill pipe dreamer, the handsome "Yowsa" O'Dowd (Ciaran Crawford) who talks the talk about getting his green card and going off to "Amerikay" for a good job and more and better women. There's also the gossip mongering "Laddeen" Toner (Jeffrey M. Bender), whose constant nervous sneer is a giveaway for his insecurities. To see what's going to become of the saddest of the lot, "Clown" Quinn (David Ian Lee), one need only look at the long-time, half-crazed and occasionally violent drunk, Seaneen (Charles Stransky). To take the casual comings and goings into the second and more powerful second act's wrenching confrontations, there's Daithi O'Neil (Dara Coleman) who's returned to town after two years in England determined to make Father Gannon (Michael Shelle), the town priest, talk about what happened to Brother Angelus, the sadistic pedophile and to admit his own guilt in the mishandling of this situation.

To add to the dramatic tension, Daithi's return coincides with that of an unseen fifth classmate, Simon, the son of the local policeman (Kevin Hagan) and "Clown" Quinn's best friend (a friendship suspected of homosexual overtones-- something else not spoken about or tolerated in this narrow-minded atmosphere) has been sent away to dry out after attacking his father.

The play's title derives from the name of the town in which the story unfolds and a sermon delivered early on by Father Gannon who uses the story of the priest who ministered to the inmates of a leper colony to link sin with a dread and contagious disease. The town's name is fictitious, taken from the Gaelic for Raintown. The production would have been enhanced with some sound effects of pounding rain to underscore the symbolism of a "raintown" where people are drenched in despair but can't wash away their painful secrets and memories. Still, the stoic young Kellog's bar is depressingly uncozy enough to evoke an aura of unending cloudbursts and sadness.

Having the bar also accommodate the church scenes is ironically apt. After all, with no real help in dealing with emotional issues from the platitude spouting Father Gannon, the drinking and tough talk in Kellog's bar are a natural alternative.

While billed as a dark comedy, there's more cause for tears than laughter here. This is not escape entertainment, but it is a chance to become acquainted with a new, young playwright with a keenly observant mind and to watch some wonderful performances at a bargain priced ticket.

The Lepers of Baile Baiste
Written by Ronan Noone
Directed by David Sullivan
Cast: Jeffrey M. Bender (Michael "Laddeen" Toner), Dara Coleman (Daithi O'Neil), Ciaran Crawford (Aloysius "Yowsa" O'Dowd) , Kevin Hagan (Sergeant Michael O'Brien), David Ian Lee (Peter "Clown" Quinn), Michael Shelle (Father John Gannon), Zachary Springer (Patrick "Kellogg" Casey), and Charles Stransky (Sean "Seaneen" Casey
Set Design: Richard Chambers
Costume Design: Jeff Hinchee
Lighting Design: Dan Meeker
Sound Design: Julie Pittman
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with intermission
Phil Bosakowski Theater, 354 West 45th Street (8th/9th Avenues) SmartTix 212-868-4444
9/09/04 to 10/03/04; opening 9/13/04
Thursday to Saturday at 8:00 PM and Sunday at 7:00 PM -- $15
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 9/11 press preview
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