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A CurtainUp Review

Red Roses & Petrol

I agree with Einstein's theory of relativity. The more time you spend with relatives, the slower it goes -- Johnny

Fiona Gallagher and Dara Coleman
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Irish actors are having a busy time of it and theater goers have an unusual opportunity to see three plays set in Dublin at various periods. Having reviewed a pair of well-acted and interesting revivals by well known dead Irish playwrights -- O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock and Brendan Behan's The Hostage -- I would be remiss not to report on a play by a young living playwright, Joseph O'Connor set in modern Dublin.

Like the O'Casey and Behan productions, the Irish Art Center has given Mr. O'Connor's comedy drama an attractive, smoothly directed production with a superb cast. The performances make the play a go-see for all who cherish good acting.

Mr. O'Connor is an experienced writer though to date he's best known for his novels (and as singer Sinead's brother). He has a decided gift for biting and often funny dialogue which in Red Roses & Petrol is wasted on a rather ordinary and familiar dysfunctional family story.

To add some novelty to the much used device of having the death of a patriarch unite the family and pop open the lid on a Pandora's box of family secrets and hostilities, Mr. O'Connor has made the dead father, Endo Doyle (Frank McCourt), part of the reunion of his widow and three children courtesy of a videotaped memoir periodically excerpted on a giant TV screen in the Doyle living room.

But what worked for Beckett in Krapp's Tape fails to make either the father or the play more vivid. Endo's TV presence does rise above gimmickry a few times, most movingly so when his widow Moya (Aideen O'Kelly) stands in the darkened living room and gently traces her fingers across his TV image. That says as much as anything in the script about a woman trying to understand and reach out to a man with whom she's spent a lifetime. On a more humorous note, Endo's TV image is a bizarre "witness" to his dissolute son Johnny's (Dara Coleman) mistaking part of his ashes as a stash of coke. Like many of the play's potentially strong moments, however, this bit of black humor is allowed to fizzle.

Except for Frank McCourt, who is frozen inside that giant TV set, all the Doyles are wonderfully alive. The mother, the stay-at-home sister Medbh (Julie Hale), uptight New York émigré Catherine (Fiona Gallagher) and brother Johnny who "specializes in being outrageous" -- all tap into their characters' every shade of humor and vulnerability, feistiness and insecurity. David Costelloe is also better than excellent as Tom Ivors, the only Doyle outsider. He gets the not too bright but gentle and endearing boyfriend of the always on edge Catherine just right.

The strength of the performances and the dialogue almost make you forget the play's weaknesses. Almost. The two day's of unpacking the unsurprising secrets of Enda's and Moya's marriage seem at times to be endless. The holes in the script's fabric are too gaping to be overlooked. When Johnny bursts onto the scene he brings fire and a promise of an explosive climax to the slow-motion of this waiting for Endo's body and memory to be put to rest to life. Instead, he's like a human version of the smoking gun that good dramaturgy demands must go off before the play's end. His rage peters out and the human gun sputters like a toy water pistol.

The title is explained as part of one of Moya's reminiscences about her days as a young actress, her courtship and marriage -- seems Endo, who loved gardening, would go to buy petrol for his lawnmower and roses for her. Like much about this play, this title clarification seems more authorial device than crucial play element.

Red Roses & Petrol proves that Mr. Connor has the Irish gift for words. Here's hoping he develops the dramaturgical skills worthy of that gift.

Juno and the Paycock
The Hostage

by Joseph O'Connor
Directed by Neal ]ones
Cast: Dara Coleman/ Johnny Doyle, David Costelloe/ Tom Ivers, Fiona Gallagher/ Catherine Doyle, ]ulle Hale/Medbh Doyle, Aideen O'Kelly/ Moya Doyle Frank McCourt /Enda Doyle
Set Design: Niall Walsh
Lighting Design: David Higham
Costume Design: Hilary O'Connor
Running time: 2 1/2 hours plus one 15-minute intermission
Irish Arts Center, 553 W. 51st St. (10th/11th Avs) 581-4125
10/17/2000-11/30/2000 (subject to change); opening 10/31/2000

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 11/02 performance

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