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A CurtainUp Review
The Quare Land
By Charles Wright
The sight-gag of Pugh alone in his squalid attic lavatory, cleverly designed by Charlie Corcoran, sets an appropriately ribald tone for this comedy by the hitherto unknown John McManus. This opening turns out to be the sole serene moment in a rollicking 80vminutes of inspired comedy.
Old as he is, Pugh (Peter Maloney) lives on his own in rural County Cavan, working his hardscrabble farm without assistance. His is an eccentric, antisocial existence: he seldom leaves his 51 acres, has no telephone, doesn't open mail, and hasn't had a bath in four years.
Pugh's bath time, which occurs at distant intervals, involves elaborate ritual. Since the tub isn't connected to the farmhouse plumbing, he lugs hot water upstairs in kettles and pans; then, before immersing himself, he adds the bubble-soap, arranges his rubber bath toys, and sets up an ancient phonograph to play Bobby Darin and Enya.
Anyone familiar with Irish comedy will foresee that, as soon as Pugh settles into his tub, an interloper is bound to spoil the peace of his ablutions. The inconvenient visitor who sets McManus's plot in high-speed motion is Rob McNulty (Rufus Collins), a property developer who has been trying to reach the old man by telephone and post and has now driven a long distance, desperate to find him.
McNulty is proprietor of a luxury hotel in County Leitrim that isn't attracting enough business to cover the monthly carrying charges. He has resolved to expand the hotel golf course from nine holes to eighteen in the belief that this will make the place appealing to affluent vacationers. In order to expand, he needs a parcel of land supposedly owned by Pugh.
A few years ago, when McManus won a radio play competition sponsored by Irish national broadcaster Radió Teilifís Èireann, he was working as a plasterer (his father's trade). There's no reason to doubt he was a competent plasterer; but The Quare Land proves his vocation as a playwright.
McManus works skillfully in the great tradition of Irish comedy, both verbal and physical. The set-up for the plot is as simple and high-concept as Lady Gregory's Spreading the News; but the playwright concocts a number of surprises that turn the latter part of the script wild and woolly as Synge's Playboy of the Western World. At moments, McManus's humor rambles into the dark, Gen X territory of Martin McDonagh, giving the proceedings a quality that's edgy and up-to-the-minute. (Further specificity about the darker aspects of The Quare Land would spoil the fun.)
McManus is fortunate in his cast for this United States premiere. Peter Maloney is a familiar presence at the Irish Rep and on other New York stages. He's the most reliable of character actors, which means he has played a myriad of supporting roles, many of them thankless. He also has a respectable career in television and film. The Quare Land is an opportunity for audiences to gauge his versatility.
Planted at center stage, confined to his tub, Maloney gives a monumental performance without mugging, exposing his privates, or resorting to other thespian gimmicks. With remarkable vocal range, he growls, brays, sputters, weeps, and makes human, animal, and mechanical sounds; he bickers, sings, and soliloquizes; and he finds enough moments of real poignance in the midst of McManus's comedy to make Pugh a far deeper character than, at first blush, he seems.
It's inevitable that The Quare Land belongs to the actor playing Pugh — or it should, if that actor's worth his salt. But Collins gives a fine performance as well. The role of McNulty may be a less flashy assignment, but the younger actor holds his comic ground against Maloney throughout. The two have just the right chemistry for McManus's script (think of Lemmon and Matthau in The Odd Couple or Mostel and Wilder in The Producers). And under Ciarán O'Reilly's direction, their joint performance is an object lesson in comic timing and a highlight of the fall theater season.