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January 2, 2009

TT: The luck of the Irish

In today's Wall Street Journal drama column I review two Irish plays, one in Chicago (Steppenwolf's production of Conor McPherson's The Seafarer) and one off Broadway (the Atlantic Theater Company's revival of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan). Both are superlative. Here's an excerpt.

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steppenwolf.jpg"The Seafarer" was seen on Broadway last season in a production that was staged in exemplary fashion by the author himself. On that occasion I described it as "worthy of comparison with the finest work of the young Brian Friel." For an Irish playwright, that's a 150-proof compliment. But first impressions can be deceptive, so when Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Company announced that it was mounting a new production, I changed my holiday travel schedule so that I could catch a performance in between flights, then drove through a snowstorm to find out whether "The Seafarer" was as good as I'd thought. Neither play nor production disappointed me. Anyone who's seen Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" on Broadway knows what Steppenwolf can do, and they've done it again with "The Seafarer." Randall Arney's staging is decidedly different in tone from the Broadway production--among other things, he's soft-pedaled the broad physical comedy that was a highlight of Mr. McPherson's version--but equally effective in its quieter, less overtly Irish way....

"The Cripple of Inishmaan" is a snarlingly black comedy whose subject is stage-Irishness, the smotheringly quaint charm that continues to be used, in Ireland and elsewhere, to paper over the harsh realities of village life. The island community of Inishmaan is an echo chamber in which everybody knows everybody else's business and gossips about it ceaselessly and circularly: "I do worry awful about Billy when he's late in returning, d'you know?" "Already once you've said that sentence." To live in so narrow a place is agony to Billy (Aaron Monaghan), the title character, an orphan who longs with all his heart to break away and seek a wider, warmer world. The genius of "The Cripple of Inishmaan" is that it plays Billy's plight for laughs, steering away from sentimentality and forcing the viewer to look squarely upon the ordinary sorrows of his daily life.

Unlike Steppenwolf's production of "The Seafarer," this revival is an all-Irish import. It was originally staged by Garry Hynes for the Druid Theater Company and features the same actors who were seen in Galway. I can't imagine a more knowing performance...

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted January 2, 2009 12:00 AM

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