Review: ‘The Quare Land’ at The Irish Rep. A Lesson in Empathy
Thomas Burns Scully
Inviting a critic to your show is like inviting the Incredible Hulk to a house party. He could be fine, lovely, charming and intelligent, or he might break all of your things, set fire to your house and kill your pets. The interesting thing about it is that, like the Hulk, I (the critic) don’t know which of those two guys I’m going to be when I come see a show. I certainly want to be nice, but if I’m going to give an honest critical opinion of something then I have to be open to let it effect me in whatever way it does. And sometimes that means I’m going to turn in to Mr. Green. I’m about to review ‘The Quare Land’, currently at the Irish Rep as part of the 1st Irish Festival. I’m probably not going to Hulk out, but I’m definitely going to say some things that reflect badly on the show and this opening paragraph… well, I suppose I’m using it to set an apologist tone for the piece. I get the feeling that over the next few hundred words I’m going to say some unflattering things and then apologize for some of them. Perhaps because I just feel funny about ‘The Quare Land’… I can appreciate why it’s technically a good play. But I largely didn’t enjoy it.
This John McManus work, directed by Ciaran O’Reilly, tells the story of Hugh Pugh, an old man in a bath tub. He’s a farmer who wants little, does little and doesn’t bathe often. He lives on a broken down farm in a broken down field with a broken down dog. He’s not sad or put upon, he just seems content to have his life be what it is. At the start of the play he’s having his first bathe in forty years, drinking a Guinness and listening to rock n’ roll. Suddenly, a car pulls up to his house, and a slick, but put upon, hotel owner called Rob gives Hugh news that will change his life. And then Hugh proceeds to twist his arm for all he’s worth.
I’ll get the good out of the way first. The play is slickly written, the characters lovingly fleshed out with layers and layers of idiosyncrasy and good old-fashioned bile. This comes about as a result of the alchemy between McManus’ writing and the performances of Rufus Collins (Rob) and Peter Maloney (Hugh). An exceptional level of acting skill is on display here, the two of them inhabit this quagmire-like world and seem to devolve further and further in to their characters with every filthy revelation. Maloney is the ghost of Steptoe and Collins the epitome of corporate-abused masculinity. McManus’ dialogue is so characterful it seems to smell, and occasionally throws out zingers worthy of Groucho Marx (“Have a baby? She can’t even drive!”). Charlie Corcoran’s set design is also sublime, an attic set, too small for its actors, tapering back in false perspective like something out of ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’. On paper, I should love this play, instead, I’m indifferent. So where the hell am I getting off?
I think my problem stems from something very simple. Something I’ve heard my mother say about a few of my favorite TV characters and I’ve found perplexing, but now I think I understand. I didn’t like either of the characters. It may seem petty of me, and perhaps it is, but I just didn’t like them. At no point did I ever feel like I should like or care about Hugh. Amusing as he was, I was never rooting for him. And when Rob is fleshed out later in the play with moments of humanity, empathizing with Hugh entered in to the realms of impossibility. You could make the argument that you're not meant to like him, and that would be, to a certain extent, valid. But, as someone once told me, if you find yourself, as an audience member thinking “I don’t care what happens next,” then the drama is dead. And with no reason to care about either character I lost interest, and the humor’s luster faded with the lack of humanity in the play. It’s unusual, normally I love a good anti-hero. Alex DeLarge is one of my favorite characters. The moral scum of the Earth, but you care about what happens to him. Hugh Pugh, at best morally ambivalent, at worst a psychotically manipulatory liar… I could see the fate the play had in store for him a good fifteen minutes before the end of the play. And I didn’t care.
I really do want to like ‘The Quare Land’. It just won four awards at the first Irish Awards ceremony. Maybe if I’d seen it on a different day (the performances were in form, but I’d had a strange day leading up to the show) I might have been in the right mood for it, and I wouldn’t have fixated on this idea so much. But I suppose you don’t get to choose when you Hulk out. Not that anything above resembled Hulking out, but it is nice when the closing and opening paragraphs bookend each other, isn’t it? I’m ambivalent about ‘Quare Land’; leaning towards dislike, but able to acknowledge enough of it’s sizable prowess to prevent actively taking issue with it. In fact, I’ll still tell you to go see it, it’s an interesting piece, funny, and there’s a good chance you’ll get something good out of it. But for whatever reason, I didn’t. And for some reason I feel like I should apologize for that. I’m not sure if that makes any sense. Oh well, woe is me. Never pity the executioner, even if he’s having a slightly off day.
‘The Quare Land’ runs at the Irish Repertory at the DR 2 Theatre in Union Square as part of Origin Theatre’s 1st Irish Festival. It will be performing until November 15th, tickets start at $70 and are available online at irishrep.org, along with a full performance schedule.
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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