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A CurtainUp Review

The Pagans

Five years here. It's not New York City
---Danaan, about the unchanging habits of people in the small County Clare town that Michael Riordan left for the faster pace of New York five years earlier.
Susanne Markey& Nora Chester
Susanne Markey& Nora Chester
(Photo:Kim T. Sharp)
Family reunions often stir up long-standing resentments and jealousies. Michael Riordan's visit to the small town in County Clare Ireland he left five years earlier for a more upscale life in New York is no exception.

The Pagans which revolves around that visit spans just two weeks, but it animates antagonisms and hurts that reach way back into the family history. The play's kitchen sink realism treads no new paths in its examination of old grudges and rivalries. However, playwright Ann Noble has given the Riordan clan such vivid life and the dialogue she has written for their interactions sizzles with such authenticity that The Pagans transcends its ordinariness and blinds you to its flaws -- especially given the finely tuned and acted production it's been given by the Abingdon Theatre Company.

The seven scenes (three in the first act, four in the second) all play out in the Riordan living-dining room which Jame F. Wolk has furnished with a fine eye to detail: the oil-cloth covered table, the hutch holding dishes and framed photographs, the shabby arm chair and small desk covered with religious paraphernalia at opposite ends of the room, the toys strewn over the floor. . . all give a clear sense of the no-frills existence inside these drab brown walls even before the actors come on stage. But while the mud-colored house shrieks "dull" and "impoverished" this proves to be deceptive once we become acquainted with the people who live here and pass through. The more colorful, unseen landscape outside those colorless walls is reflected in the personalities of all eight characters -- enough so to grab and hold our interest and arouse our sympathy.

Stephen Hollis steers the ensemble through the awkwardness and tension of Michael's (Steven Rishard) visit with a fine sense for bringing out the humorous aspects of the characters without diminishing the drama, and keeping bathos from overwhelming the ultimate explosions. The amusing opening scene establishes the animosity between Thomas (Frank Anderson), the uncommunicative, hard-drinking patriarch and Frances Dorcey (Susanne Marley), his tight-lipped, fanatically religious sister-in-law. The word spinster may be obsolete, but women like Frances insure that it continues to have a place in the lexicon. In contrast to the bible quoting spinster, there's her big-hearted sister Margaret Riordan (Nora Chester), the strong center of the family who uncomplainingly supplements the her husband's meager earnings as a seamstress. Michael's arrival -- his Armani suit and attractive but independent American wife Anna Leigh (Victoria Adams) loudly and clearly proclaim that he has indeed achieved the success he sought.

The unhappiest Riordan of all is second son Tadhg Riordan (Christopher Drescher), whose dreams of a football career were crushed by a crippling injury. The toys belong to his 5-year-old son Connor (whom we never see) whose mother Danaan O'Doherty (Rachel Fowler) lets the regularly unemployed Tadgh watch him while she works but has steadfastly refused to marry him. Bobby Quinnn (Mark Alhadeff) a neighbor with a heart of gold and an IQ probably in double digits, rounds out the cast of characters.

I won't reveal the cause for the underlying the tension between the brothers or why Margaret has asked Michael to come back and reestablish his connection with the family (you'll probably figure things out well before the visit comes to its explosive end). This is a character and performance rather than a suspense driven play. From Nora Chester's memorably moving portrayal of Margaret Riordan to Mark Alhadeff's hilarious Bobby Quinn, the ensemble fully and convincingly realizes the individuality of their characters.

As I've already indicated The Pagans is not without structural weaknesses, mainly the author's giving in to the instinct for a somewhat melodramatic conclusion to the sibling rivalry and topping it off with a somewhat facile show of family solidarity. But these flaws are barely perceptible blemishes in the rich and heart-warming overall picture of a contemporary Irish family.

The Pagans is Ann Noble's second Irish play and won her the prestigious Joseph Jefferson award in 2002. The Abingdon Theatre deserves high praise for introducing New York audiences to her work. If you've never visited their handsome first floor theater, this is your chance to enjoy both a comfortable new venue and the work of a solid new theatrical voice -- and at a very affordable price.

The Pagans
Written by Ann Noble
Directed by Stephen Hollis
Cast: Victoria Adams, Mark Alhadeff, Frank Anderson, Nora Chester, Christopher Drescher, Rachel Fowler, Susanne Marley and Steven Rishard
Set Design: James F. Wolk.
Costume Design:Wade Laboissonniere
Lighting Design: David Castaneda
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Dialects: Mary Baird
Running time: 2 1/2 hours, including one 10-minute intermission
June Havoc Theatre, Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex 312 W. 36th Street, First Floor
From 2/27/04 to 3/21/04; opening 3/03 /04.
Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30 PM; Saturday at 2:00 PM; Sunday at 3:00 PM.
Ticket Price: $19
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/29/04 press performance

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