Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Pride of Parnell Street

The Pride of Parnell Street comes on a little strong at first, with its thick Dublin accents and glossary of terms, but once past the head of that thick brew--it's an everyman's Guinness--things quickly coalesce into a positively thirst-quenching bit of theater. Sebastian Barry's writing is so strong, so from the heart, that you'll wonder why all plays aren't performed in this sparse, elegiac monologue format. (Faith Healer's a bad example of the form, but if you liked that, you'll love this.) One almost forgets to clap at the end of the show, having long since forgotten that Aidan Kelly and Mary Murray are actors, and not actually Joe, an idling dreamer, and Janet, the woman he loved, married, and drove away. The Pride of Parnell Street is hypnotically honest, at times grotesquely genuine, and above all--in matters of the head, heart, and soul--authentic.

Though Janet claims that "some things is private after all," shuddering as she recalls the night of violence that made her grab her two kids and leave Joe, the play's power lies in how nothing is hidden. Joe spends the majority of the play lying ill in bed and Janet makes a point of standing strongly behind her choices--if they fib at times, it's only ever as a back door to the truth: "I'm sorry," says Joe, honest at last when he says he isn't looking for sympathy, aboil with guilt. "I wasn't sorta ready. I'm ready now."

Barry's smart, and doesn't try to justify the tragedies; they simply occur, much like the terrorist bombing of Dublin in 1974: "They never even known who put them bombs there." So it goes with their six-year-old son, Billy, who just "catched on the back of a beery lorry the O'Connell Street end of Parnell Street, and was dragged in the back of it somehow, how it happened only God knows," and so it is with Joe, who cannot explain why, on the eve of Ireland's 1990 loss to Italy in the World Cup, 1-0, he snapped on Janet. (Janet's guess--that it woke up the Midday men and made them realize that they themselves were losers--is a good one.) It's harsh and sudden, but realistic, and it provides context for the ironic accidents that lead to Joe and Janet meeting once more.

More importantly, these natural events fill the script with emotional swings, detailed memories, and surprising moments, all of which allow Kelly and Murray to go for absolute broke. Love isn't always a happy thing, and those many facets are what pour out of these two diamond actors. Whether Murray fidgets with her fingers when unsteady or pulls at the lace of her shirt when in pain, whether her brow seems to smile as her eyes light up or seems to frown as her lips bite into themselves, she's always filled with the same passion, one that's simply refracted in a complex way. Kelly, on the other hand, is almost beatifically simple: when confined to his bed, his whole voice quietly aches at the lowest moment, and then seems to be healed by the remembering of his wife's breasts "electing me, like in an election." Later, though he leans heavily into a cane to stand, his voice grows steadier and steadier as he recounts his plan to win Janet back.

There's little to say about Sabine Dargent's set, for although it aimlessly alternates between distracting literalism (an angel statue, off to one side) and out-of-place metaphor (a window showing a rainy sky), one hardly notices it until the show is over. (In fact, Mark Galione's lighting seems designed to block out everything but the two actors.) In any case, it does the job, which in this case is simply providing a platform for Murray and Kelly and then--save for one appropriate, heartbreakingly beautiful moment at the end (which is making me tear up even as I type)--standing far, far back, the sort of choice that marks Jim Culleton as a very good director.

The Pride of Parnell Street isn't just the pride of 59E59, or of the First Irish Festival: it's the pride of New York City's theater scene, the first honest-to-God smash of the season.

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