Tuesday, April 20, 2010

When Irish eyes are . . (well, you know the drill)

The talented cast of Trad.

Whenever I see a poster for Irish theatre in Boston, I can almost hear that little girl from Poltergeist screaming "They're ba-a-a-ck!" But Jaysus, Mary and Joseph, this time they literally are. The whole crew from the failed Súgán Theatre Company - which, as everyone knows, I destroyed single-handedly with one review - seems to have re-assembled (under the banner of the new Tir Na company) for Trad, a newish comedy by Mark Doherty, at the BCA through April 24. Two of the actors - Colin Hamel and Billy Meleady - were Súgán regulars, and it's helmed by Súgán founder Carmel O'Reilly.

Which brings back unpleasant memories of my days back at the Globe, when I criticized the Súgán for their boring productions and impenetrable accents, and O'Reilly's dim-witted Board sent in a letter saying I was racist. Yes, even though I'm Irish. At the time, it ticked me off; by now, I've been called a racist by almost every ethnic group discomfited by my criticism, so I'm pretty much used to it. And it seems only proper that my own ethnic group should imagine I hate them, too - it brings the mania for dodging criticism with identity politics full circle, and somehow that's a beautiful thing. In fact, I really should set up a date for J. Holman, Isaac Butler, that lady who said I was anti-Semitic, the guy who insisted I was anti-Native-American, and of course all the fans who have e-mailed to say I hate women, as well as that psychotherapist who said I was homophobic. They could all have a grand time at my expense (even though probably many of them secretly hate each others' ethnicities and genders!) and I'm sure none of them would ever think to themselves, "Wait a minute - maybe Tom Garvey isn't a racist; maybe we're all just second-rate!"

To be fair,Trad is at least first-rate among the second-rate. But what's troubling about its smooth, entertaining surface is how thoroughly it undermines the stance of its playwright. Mark Doherty clearly intends Trad to play as an affectionate, but genuinely barbed, look at the kind of schtick that puts Irish butts in seats. Thus the crusty traditionalism of the Emerald Isle is pushed to absurd extremes in the play's leads: "Son" is actually 100, and his "Da" is at least thirty years older, and seemingly on his deathbed as the curtain rises. Ay, but soon he's screwed on his peg leg and gone off with sonny on a darlin' little journey, all in search of a grandson spawned some seventy years before, in his offspring's single sexual "incident."

The rest of the play concerns their odd little odyssey across the back roads of Irish cliché, featuring encounters with two even crustier traditionalists (both played with bitter wit by the great Nancy E. Carroll), with whom they engage in dazed, nearly-senile banter about modernity, sex, America, and black people, and other things the Irish seemingly still hate. By now Doherty's mockery of Irish "trad" is being telegraphed in capital letters - but O'Reilly makes the mockery so gentle that it could be confused with bemused flattery. When Da (who's missing a leg) and Son (who's missing an arm) hop across the landscape to the sound of a merry fiddle, we sense Doherty intends an edge of ridicule to slide into the proceedings, but here they're just as cute as bejesus, they are, as they do their wee dance. Likewise Nancy E. Carroll is careful not to push too hard on the racism of one of her characters, nor the cold judgmentalism of the other. Director O'Reilly's idea seems to be that since the Celtic Tiger dropped dead (Trad was written in the heyday of the debt-fueled Irish economic bubble), somehow the edges in Doherty's writing should be sanded down. To which I can only reply - why? The renewed community spirit the Irish need now doesn't really depend on these blinkered reactionaries, does it?

Which isn't to say Doherty is Brendan Behan, much less Martin McDonagh; still, Trad feels subtly bowdlerized, and that seems to be the way the local critics like it. The Globe's Louise Kennedy adored the show, as it pretty much aligns with her seeming idea that art should be like comfort food (her buzzwords of "warm and wise" always conjure for me images of a creamy dramatic casserole). Not that Louise was alone; so far it seems every critic in town has come to the conclusion that Trad is just like Beckett, believe it or not. Which it is - if Beckett had written Waiting for the Odd Couple. Yes, Doherty takes some funny pokes at Beckett, with his withered ancients losing their limbs, but THIS IS NOT BECKETT. (What's troubling about this kind of claim is how it reveals how much these reviewers don't, actually, understand about Beckett.)

Still, it must be admitted that Trad, though hardly a deep statement, is often pretty funny. A lot of the humor I'm afraid is mechanical, but Carroll does get one hilarious monologue about a determined Irish farmer who dies of "erosion" as he loses one limb after another (rather like our heroes), and the playwright supplies a steady stream of witty one-liners. And maybe he's also come up with an arc, which I'm afraid Tir Na also ignores. I get the sense (spoiler alert!) that Doherty intends for Da to knowingly prepare his feckless son for the responsibility of his offspring before he, himself, departs for the great beyond; his death has not been denied, but merely postponed. O'Reilly and her cast largely ignore this dimension of the play, however, and so there's little or no tension between Billy Meleady's resentful Da and Colin Hamel's complacent son, and little sense that time is running out for both of them. So when Trad takes a turn toward the tragic at the last minute, it seems to founder. Meleady still wrings some poignance from his dying lines, but Colin Hamel just seems lost as the production's jaunty tone abruptly vanishes. Perhaps because it was actually the wrong tone all along.