Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Titanic performance at the New Rep

Colin Hamell in Jimmy Titanic - photo: Michael and Suz Karchmer.

We live, it seems, in an age of theatrical vehicles. Playwrights are short on vision these days, and the culture is far from coherent; but actors still need work - hence Jimmy Titanic, at the New Rep through this weekend, a bemused and bemusing one-man show, starring the versatile Colin Hamell, as a lost passenger on that famous ocean liner (another vehicle!) that vanished beneath the waves one night to remember in 1912.

Yes, you read that right - this is a light comedy about the sinking of the Titanic; something rather improbable about the supposedly unsinkable. And no, Jimmy didn't survive - the play is (mostly) a wry reminiscence from the heights of Heaven - sometimes leavened with moments of true pathos.  That the evening comes off as comedy at all (and it does come off) is a testament to the skills of both actor Hamell and the script's author, Bernard McMullan. I can't pretend that the play is more than a mildly entertaining way to while away about an hour and a half of your life. But these days - maybe that ain't bad.

Mr. McMullan basically keeps Jimmy Titanic afloat by throwing out all sorts of dramatic material, and then seeing what sticks (at least for a while). And luckily, it turns out he is a skillful sketch writer - there are all sorts of good ideas bobbing around on the surface of his script; but mostly they're all tip, no iceberg. You could argue the playwright thus cannily avoids capsizing his wry tone - but as we watch seemingly a dozen good dramatic ideas drift by, a certain sense of thematic vacuum sets in, and we wonder at the long-term wisdom of his seeming stance.

Still, many of McMullan's gambits are beguiling. He conjures a heaven that's a bit like a down-and-out neighborhood in Belfast (Jimmy's hometown); the Archangel Gabriel shakes down new arrivals for spare change, and the Almighty himself is a grizzled old chain-smoker; there's even a disco (and sex, apparently). This shanty paradise struck me as quite a good idea - but it didn't really lead anywhere. Likewise, the playwright crafts a striking scene in which Jimmy spends his last moments on earth drinking with the Astors, as the water rises around them - another inspired gambit, but we never meet these avatars of the upper crust on the "other side," and indeed the whole question of how heaven might level the social differences that meant so much on earth (and determined who lived and died on the Titanic) never really surfaces.

Other themes can be glimpsed on the edges of the script, passing like strangers in the night. Why did God command that iceberg to drift into the Titanic's path? And what role did human error - or dishonesty - play in the tragedy?  Jimmy himself was one of the laborers who innocently built the flawed vessel - but he never wrestles with his own role in its creation. And what does it mean for those who caused the disaster to be in heaven along with their victims? In many plays, we sense the playwright groping for a compelling theme; here, we feel McMullan all but pushing them aside in the quest for his next one-liner.

Still, if you're in the mood for a light evening that dips occasionally into rueful recollection, shot through with Irish feeling - or if you like pointed little skits that never sharpen their points too far - then Jimmy Titanic is all but guaranteed to please you. Certainly this production, which originated with the Tir Na theatre company, and has already toured extensively, has been buffed to a high sheen by director Carmel O'Reilly (who seems to specialize these days in light reiterations of older, deeper Irish drama). I'd even argue McMullan could be a talent to watch, if he can harness his skills to some larger artistic purpose. And Hamell's performance is surely a focused, precise tour de force - buoyantly secure and skillful - unsinkable, even.

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