What do you know? An early play by Conor McPherson, This Lime Tree Bower, has it all. All that neither his other two plays seen hereabouts, nor any of the plays of his chief Irish rival, Martin McDonagh, have: rib-tickling wit, mind-jolting insight, and heart-refreshing humanity, neatly blended. This despite the fact that its three characters take turns monologuizing, there being only two lines of dialogue. Brian Friel managed this once or twice before, but it’s still amazing.
Joe is in secondary school; his brother, Frank, a few years older, is helping out in their widowed father’s fish-and-chips shop; Ray, who is having an affair with their sister, Carmel, while also liberally screwing around, teaches philosophy at the local university. Innocent Joe is schoolboyishly in love with his amoral, sexually experienced classmate Damien. Frank is enraged that his honest, hardworking (and hard-drinking) father is knee-deep in debt to the town’s wealthy and slimy bookie, “Simple” Simon McCurdie, who, with his repulsive nephew, is a regular at his debtor’s eatery, where they never have to pay, and Dad’s long-outstanding debt is about to be called in. Ray, envious of the eminent old philosopher Konigsberg, who is giving three guest lectures at the university, plans to get him during the final question period.
However this may sound, I guarantee you that it and the quirky events that ensue, tying together several bizarre but believable stories, will have you both in stitches and at the edge of your seat. You become almost conspiratorially involved with the characters, the offstage ones nearly as real as the three onstage. How right they all sound! The jaded Ray: “Now I always drank in the student bar because I hate academics. I don’t really like students either, but there you are.” Or, on a weekend outing with Carmel: “We had a few more drinks. And we were too tired or too full to fuck. And if you stay in a hotel, you’ve got to fuck. So I made a point of waking up early.”
Here is Frank about his father: “That man had done everything by the rules in his life and look what happened. He was left on his own and shagged by bastards like McCurdie. But he was right. That was the thing. Well I didn’t want to be right anymore. That’s a lot of meaningless toss.” Now take Joe, about to crawl under the blanket with one of Frank’s thrillers or Westerns: “I liked his books because the sentences were always short. The writers gave you the facts. In school we did books where nobody said what they meant and you had to work out what everybody wanted … These books knew how to be read.”
Under Harris Yulin’s unfussy but canny direction, the performances vibrate; the lines shiveringly hit their mark. T. R. Knight is disarmingly ingenuous as Joe, with a boyish freshness as appetizing as a brand-new banknote. As Frank, Thomas Lyons, once he stops going up on his lines, will be fine as he evolves from despairing nonentity to a man of desperate, but still comic, action. Drew McVety, as the cynical Ray, is best of all, perfectly conveying the weary sophistication masking the petty resentments of a man who can casually remark, “Good thing our souls don’t have smells. Because mine would stink.”
Conor McPherson believes in the supernatural, and his plays abound in ghoulies, ghosties, and things that go bump in the night. Yet it is by sticking to the natural that he has made This Lime Tree Bower (a quotation from Coleridge) into the charming, chiseled, deftly structured comedy that it is, whose movie version he is currently directing under the title Salt Water. I’m not sure what either title has to do with the matter at hand, but then, our author favors cryptic titles. (I have yet to find anyone who can explain why St. Nicholas is called that.) But McPherson also quotes a further line from Coleridge’s poem in his epigraph: “No sound is dissonant which tells of life.” And that is what he has done here: made music out of the very dissonances of life.
With this production, Primary Stages, though modest of means, continues to affirm itself as one of our most valuable institutional theaters. Just think what they could do if someone staked them to spiffier, more versatile premises!