Irish Lives and Livers

From Opposite Sides of a Small Island, Two Small Sad Plays

Down in Dublin, where a small nation's economic and personal woes have, after decades of independence, displaced the historical injustice-collecting that still poisons Ulster, people forget their troubles much as they do in other parts of the Western world—by drinking, bullying their children, and complaining to sympathetic acquaintances. That's what they do, anyway, in Conor McPherson's Dublin Carol, which I'm tempted to describe as his first play. It is, anyway, the first of his works I've seen that does not consist almost entirely of a series of narrations being recited for no particular reason, a form that's occasionally diverting but rarely dramatic. In Dublin Carol the three people actually talk to each other, and only tell stories when driven to do so by some emotional need of the moment. That's the good news. The bad news is that their dialogue reveals McPherson as a writer who, apart from his ability to keep a narrative in motion, has precious little to offer. Nothing in Dublin Carol seems false, nothing seems dramatically rigged or (as in McGuinness's script) stuck in the characters' mouths by someone of superior education to drive home some philosophic point. It all seems true and humanand terribly familiar.

Jason Butler Harner and Justin Theroux in Observe the Sons . . . : Somme nerve
photo: Carol Rosegg
Jason Butler Harner and Justin Theroux in Observe the Sons . . . : Somme nerve


Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme
By Frank McGuinness
Newhouse Theater
Lincoln Center

Dublin Carol
By Conor McPherson
Atlantic Theater
336 West 20th Street

The time is Christmas Eve. The play's hero, or anyway its talker-in-chief, is a drink-sodden undertaker's assistant, long estranged from his wife, who is now in the hospital dying, as is his boss, who took him in and rescued him when he was on his alcoholic way down. He tells his troubles to a young part-time pallbearer whose rootlessness suggests that he might be starting on the same downward spiral; in alternate scenes, he rehashes them in battle with his long-neglected daughter, who wants him not only to visit his dying wife but to promise that he will supervise her laying-out for the funeral. This last motif, again the single twist that brings the play a step away from predictability, is the one most cursorily dealt with. The backlog of family miseries, endlessly rehashed, irresistibly suggests the personal agonies aired on daytime TV. Even though the three actors are excellent and the staging (by the author) reasonably convincing, I kept drifting away mentally, imagining a Celtic Misery cable channel which would present the familial torments of a different set of Dubliners every evening, their tongues loosened each night by a different brand of Irish whiskey. Only certified AA members of provable Irish ancestry could subscribe, and the rest of us would be left in peace to go to a theater where the events onstage were of dramatic interest, and the phrase "Irish play" meant something like Heartbreak House or The Silver Tassie or Purgatory—plays that take the audience somewhere other than the few most familiar, most overworked acres of old theatrical sod.

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