Nothing to Speak Of

Talk is Cheap: Kerry O'Malley and Jim Norton gab, and gab, and gab in Conor McPherson's Dublin Carol.Photo: Carol Rosegg

What made me doze off at Conor McPherson’s Dublin Carol was not lack of sleep but lack of drama. In the now-fashionable format of 90 intermissionless minutes, it presents a near-insurmountable challenge to wakefulness. You’d expect at least rousing language from an Irish play, but no: This carol is really a lullaby.

John Plunkett is co-owner of a funeral parlor. His partner, Noel, is in the hospital with a nonfatal disease. John’s ex-wife is also hospitalized, with incurable cancer. John hasn’t seen her in years: Should he now? John also hasn’t seen his son, Paul, living in England, in years. His new employee, Mark, 20, is Noel’s son and has just broken off with his girlfriend, whom we don’t see. John’s daughter, Mary, whom John also hasn’t seen in years, appears briefly to urge him to join her in a visit to her dying mother. We don’t see whether he does. All the drama in Dublin Carol took place years ago or is kept offstage. Why doesn’t McPherson simply write fiction?

For action, we get lots of whiskey-drinking, some tea-drinking, taking Christmas decorations off a puny tree even though it’s Christmas Eve, doffing and donning an overcoat, and consulting an Advent calendar. And words. But not even free-flowing, poetic ones: All three characters speak either haltingly or lengthily in incomplete, unsyntactical sentences, vaguely and, for us non-Hibernians, hermetically. Under the author’s direction, Keith Nobbs, Jim Norton, and Kerry O’Malley act as well as inaction permits. What can you do with a play where, for example, John natters on, while Mark’s four consecutive responses are “Yeah?” “Mmm,” “Yeah,” “We might. Yeah”? To be sure, there are interesting stage directions: (They smile.) (They laugh.) (Laughs.) What have these people to laugh about?

Until now, Encores! has seemed virtually infallible. Each of the semi-staged musical revivals was at least worthy; at best, terrific. With the Harold Arlen–Truman Capote House of Flowers, they at last prove human, erring like nobody’s business. True, even the original 1954 production—which had the exquisite young Diahann Carroll and the grand, not so much older Pearl Bailey, plus Oliver Messel’s enchanting décor—eked out only 165 performances, but it did beget a cult.

The original Capote book, adapted here by Kristen Childs, concerns two rival brothels on a Caribbean island: Mme. Fleur’s House of Flowers and Mme. Tango’s House of Tango. The specialty of the former, now in decline, is girls named after odorous flowers; of the latter, girls who dance like demons and can wrap themselves around a man. No wonder olfactory nomenclature can’t compete with terpsichorean enwrapment. Still, the former’s charismatic Mme. Fleur has an ace up her sleeve: the adorable virgin Ottilie, a.k.a. Violet, whom she will sell to the highest bidder, the superrich Jamison.

Until now, the Encores! series has seemed virtually infallible. With House of Flowers, they at last prove human, erring like nobody’s business.

But Ottilie, a mountain girl, meets a poor visiting mountain youth, Royal, and the two fall in love. They are about to elope, but Mme. Fleur gets the nefarious rumrunner Captain Jonas, a client, to shanghai Royal in a barrel. Can there be a happy outcome? The Childs & Capote story won’t have you greatly concerned. The show’s strengths are two hit songs and Kathleen Marshall’s well-executed, energetic, but unremarkable dances. The gifted Tonya Pinkins is a bit too coquettish as the earthy Mme. Fleur, Armelia McQueen is a caricature of a caricature as Mme. Tango, and, as Jonas, Maurice Hines proves himself the lesser of the dancing Hines brothers. In supporting roles, the ageless Roscoe Lee Browne, the sassy Brenda Braxton, and the talented dancer Maia A. Moss contribute handsomely. Otherwise, this House of Flowers has wilted.

Arthur Schnitzler’s Das Weite Land (1911) is one of the twentieth century’s greatest plays, and a masterpiece by any standard. In an English version by Tom Stoppard as Undiscovered Country, it was successfully presented in London with John Wood and Dorothy Tutin, and in Hartford with Keith Baxter and Mary Layne, directed by Mark Lamos.

Broadway was interested, but what with four sets and 28 speaking parts, the play was considered unproducible. Now the deserving Mint Theater offers an estimable mounting, under the title Far and Wide. On the positive side, the translation by the director, Jonathan Bank, assisted by Peter Sander, is excellent, and the cast, reduced to thirteen, is competent or better. Bank’s staging is intelligent. On the negative side, the Mint’s limited budget and cramped space preclude conveying much of the play’s visual potential and its full social implications. This does not lessen the staggeringly acute psychological and sexual insights or the dramatic power of the work, but it forfeits its sweep and grandeur.

Even the title is a problem for the translator. The German weit means both far and wide—hence the Mint title. But the reference is to the human soul, a realm both distant and far-reaching. (The French version is called Terre étrangère.) One suspects that the country in question may also be death, for the play both begins and ends with a violent offstage demise. Schnitzler deals sovereignly with male-female entanglements—sexual and platonic, marital and extramarital, passionate and evanescent, manifest or unconscious. In the process, he touches diverse other issues, principally the paradoxes of our existence: its quakes and aftershocks, its ludicrous contradictions and devastating ironies. Witty and profound, poetic and brutal, subtle and shocking, the play prompted Schnitzler’s comment: “Feelings and understanding sleep under the same roof, but they run their own completely separate households in the human soul.”

This Far and Wide does only partial justice to Schnitzler, but how often do you have a chance to see even an imperfect version of a seldom-available absolute masterwork?

Theater Listings
Openings and Closings
Broadway Shows
Off-Broadway Shows
Off-Off-Broadway Shows

Dublin Carol
Written and staged by Conor McPherson.

House of Flowers
Encores! revival of the Harold Arlen–Truman Capote musical. (Closed.)

Far and Wide
Mint Theater revival of the play by Schnitzler.

Nothing to Speak Of