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Infighting Irish

Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock is a well-acted comedy-drama set against a background of Irish civil strife; Craig Lucas's Stranger should have remained a stranger to the New York stage.

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Bum's the word: Bill Irwin in Texts for Nothing  

Of the three rousing tragicomedies of Sean O'Casey, the so-called Irish trilogy, Juno and the Paycock is the most popular, The Shadow of a Gunman the most moving, and The Plow and the Stars the most accomplished. Juno (1924) established O'Casey as the heir to Synge, and it is to them that, to this day, most of Irish drama is beholden.

The three plays, concentrating heavily on the Irish lower and shabby-genteel classes from which O'Casey stemmed, are a triptych of Ireland's bloody road to emancipation. Juno takes place shortly after the signing of the Free State Treaty, amid the violent conflict between the Free-Staters, willing to accept near-autonomy within the Commonwealth, and the diehards, for whom only complete independence would do. The play's Boyle family and their neighbors are caught up in this internecine conflict, but are also prey to the grinding poverty inflicted on them and the various indignities they heap on themselves.

Juno Boyle, the indomitable mother (a tribute to the author's beloved mom), does everything possible to keep the centrifugally careering family together. Captain Jack Boyle is a loafer, boaster, and boozer, Juno's chief cross to bear, and the posturing peacock of the title. Their young son, Johnny, has a gimpy leg and a missing arm (not, as in the current production, in a sling) thanks to his involvement with the diehards, of whom, because of a broken oath, he now lives in terror. The family's primary breadwinner is daughter Mary, a staunch union member now on strike, wooed by Jerry Devine, than whom she hopes to do better. Charles Bentham, the schoolteacher she dotes on, impregnates her and leaves for England. Jack is thick with Joxer Daly, his fellow toper and toady, an even worse parasite than the Captain off whom he scrounges.

These are the main characters of the play, the self-taught O'Casey having brilliantly learned from the self-taught Shakespeare how to mix antithetical genres. Juno is a trickily teetering play. When R. S. McConnell inquired in a letter whether the ending is comic or ironic, O'Casey replied (October 22, 1962) that in his view it is "ironic, equally tragic, and equally comic; so, God help you, you must sort all this out." The ending, which sums up the play, must be delicately balanced. Unfortunately, God seems to have been disinclined to help John Crowley, the director of the Roundabout revival, to sort things out.

After Johnny has been killed and the stone-broke Juno takes off with her ostracizable daughter for an uncertain future, Jack and Joxer stagger drunkenly into the empty apartment, the creditors having removed the furniture. Jack the sucker blames everyone but himself as Joxer the bloodsucker eggs him on. The ending is one of commingled absurdity, grotesquery, and pathos, summed up in Jack's curtain line, the semiliterate man's favorite apothegm boozily stammered out: "The whole world's . . . in a ter . . . rible state o . . . chassis!" The misuse of chassis for chaos makes it even more laughable. But Crowley has Jack lying, not, as indicated, sitting, on the floor; the stage is in near-total darkness, and Joxer, instead of merely usurping the last stick of furniture, a trundle bed, walks out on the Captain. That spells tragedy, leaving things improperly sorted out.

There is, however, enough to recommend this revival, which probably played even better in London's Donmar Warehouse, where, with a largely different cast, it originated. Dearbhla Molloy, a fine actress and holdover, comes very close to getting everything out of the heroine -- not for nothing called Juno -- and misses out only on some ultimate intangibles. As Jack, Jim Norton is not far behind, perhaps slightly overemphasizing the part's farcical aspects. The supporting cast is generally on target, with only Cynthia Darlow, as the neighbor Maisie Madigan, putting on a brogue thicker than Mulligan stew and virtually impenetrable. A graver problem is the Joxer of Thomas Jay Ryan, miscast (too young, too robust) and not up to the role's subtler gradations.

Rae Smith's set and costumes are suitably shabby, and Brian MacDevitt's masterly lighting is yes, comic, ironic, and tragic.

after the real mettle he showed with The Dying Gaul, Craig Lucas is, in his new Stranger, back to his old bad tricks. The play steals from the trashy novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish, itself a steal from Faulkner's poorest, Sanctuary. It concerns two crazies, Linda and Hush, in adjoining seats on a flight from Philadelphia to Seattle, which is also the author's flight from reality, if not sanity. Linda and Hush brutally torture each other, except when Linda, in flashback, is torturing her husband, Frank, or either one of them is mentally torturing him or herself. In the few moments of respite, the author merely tortures us with his beastly cutesiness.

From the very outset, when a stewardess's preposterously stretched-out announcements run over or under the dialogue, we are in trouble. Hush is a newly converted Bible-toting-and-quoting fanatic, just out of fifteen years' imprisonment for having kidnapped a young woman and held her chained in a trunk of his isolated mountain cabin, feeding her scraps for a year. Linda, who grooves on the story she coaxes out of him, reciprocates with the tale of how she chained up her husband, doused him with lighter fluid, and threatened him with lighted matches.

In Act Two, Hush follows Linda to her isolated mountain cabin, where she chains him up, doesn't let him go to the bathroom, and threatens him with a carving knife when not stuffing him into a trunk. I won't give away the ending, but must note that Act Two is played out in a kind of ghastly double exposure of Now and Then. You may guess who Linda is, but not who ends up in the trunk. (One hint: not the script, which most deserves to.)

When the dialogue shakes off the cutes, it is often for monologues choppier than chicken livers, suggesting that in the proximity of Lucas's writing, a trunk, provided only that it is soundproof, becomes a choice location. I have no idea whether Kyra Sedgwick and David Strathairn, good actors elsewhere, give valid performances: There are no guidelines for how drivel should be performed. I can, however, affirm that David Harbour, who plays three lesser roles, is dreadful, and Julianne Nicholson, who plays ditto, is perfectly enchanting.

Mark Brokaw, an able director, should have been as ashamed to direct this as the actors to act in it. Neil Patel's neat sets and David Van Tieghem and Jill B. C. Du Boff's sneakily teasing music are wasted on it.

Samuel Beckett's Texts for Nothing, even more minimalist than his plays, were emphatically not meant for the stage. A very good actor, preferably but not necessarily Irish, should read them from a lectern. Their locus is Beckett's favorite venue, a human mind; their subject, language, which that mind revolves within itself, desperately and comically trying to keep itself busy, somberly amused, and, at least nominally, alive. It is not to be acted out, however cleverly, by clowning on a hillside harboring puddles, holes, rocks, and other pitfalls; the words are not to be spoken with meaningless changes in pitch, volume, and tempo.

Bill Irwin, a gifted clown but dubious adapter and actor, saddles Beckett's meanings with a scenario that can do nothing but obscure or obliterate them. Eighty minutes of this are not recommendable, especially not in the CSC's seats, inimical to Morpheus.

That said, Douglas Stein's hillside, covered in red sand and sprouting sporadic weeds, is very nicely designed, and Irwin slides beautifully down it, especially when he's trying to go up. It is also cogently lighted by Nancy Schertler, although Anita Yavich's Beckettian bum costume, complete with somewhat flattened bowler hat, is getting to be a bit of a cliché. And Irwin is properly acrobatic in every way, including eyes that pop out farther, and a mouth that opens in more assymetrical ways, than you could imagine. Of course, he has done this misguided show once before, in 1991, but expertise, however repetitious and pigheaded, must be recognized.

Still, what is this mania for one-man shows of any and every stripe that threatens to engulf our theater? Yes, they are cheap to mount, and yes, they can be fitted into almost any kind of premises, and yes, costs are rising everywhere and cutting them seems more and more mandatory.

Even so, is that why Aeschylus introduced the second actor into drama, starting the real theater -- just so we could retrogress into prehistory?


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