Thomas Burns Scully
Sometimes it’s easy to write about a show. It’s flaws or triumphs are laid easily in front of you, and you can trot out a review without much trouble at all. Others require more work, more analysis, a dialogue with yourself about the show in order to work out exactly which of its elements make it live or die. I’m not sure what the hell I’m going to say about the show I saw Friday night. Pat Shortt’s ‘Selfie’ (Presented by Origin Theatre at the Irish arts Centre as part of the 1st Irish Festival) is borderline indescribable. No really, this could be a short review. (Pun not intended) I mean, it’s very, very, very, very, very funny. Trouble breathing funny. Laugh until you cry funny. A fever dream of laughter and Irish accents. But I’m not sure I’ll be able to tell you exactly why.
‘Selfie’ starts off with a pretense of normality. The lights go down, then come up again. But then no-one comes on stage. In the silence, a strange Irish photographer for a local newspaper comes through the back of the theatre and starts talking to a member of the audience. A one-sided conversation where he appears to be doing both parts, but a conversation nonetheless. He seems to know everyone in the audience quite well, as if they’re all from the same village, and he has a few such conversations throughout the evening. I can’t tell you a single thing he said, but I laughed the entire time. He then takes to the stage and transforms in to a singing funeral director. He talks in a similar way, in the same odd one-sided conversation of constant Irish noise. Listening to Pat Shortt talk is like listening to a Robert Altman film, it always seems like nine people are mumbling in the background, even though only one is talking. And you carry on laughing. Then he sings silly songs, and you laugh more. And then he does another character, a self-important Irish guarda. And you laugh some more. Between these characters he plays out the approximate story of a local Irish funeral. And the audience never stops laughing.
It’s strange, I can barely remember a single line from the show. Odd jokes stick out, a couple of the songs had catchy chorus lines, and the guarda character reciting poetry was fantastically memorable, but it’s hard to recall any of his gags word-for-word. That’s not a bad thing, it just seems to be what Shortt does. He puts me in mind of two Paul Whitehouse characters from ‘The Fast Show’: Rowley Birkin QC, who would talk in an unintelligible old man mumble before suddenly ejaculating an audible phrase in to the conversation such as “A lorryload of interesting cheeses”; and Arthur Atkinson, a vintage music hall comedian whose comedy shtick and catchphrases brought down houses in his day, but when watched back in a modern light seems completely nonsensical. Shortt employs very similar techniques. His characters all seem to be in on a joke that they assume the audience is too, but the audience is not. He seems to know you, but you know he doesn’t. His characters seem to be talking nonsense, except when suddenly you hear a wholly recognizable phrase. They are also all cut from that most classic of archetypes, the fool who thinks he is a king. Simple time-honed techniques. Elementary. Basic, even. And yet, that’s also completely not true.
Breaking it down as I have above, I find myself thinking “Yeah, but no.” It can’t have been that simple, surely? Was it really just simple material, a rapid-fire Irish accent and good-timing? Was that really all it was, a cheap magic trick? Or was it actual alchemy? I just don’t know. Shortt is a joy to watch, but a pain to analyze in any critical way. I legitimately can’t tell if he’s a comic genius or just a bag of old parlor tricks that scrubs up nicely. But now I’m getting pithy, and that’s not flattering. A few more back-handed compliments and I may as well be writing for the New York Times. All I can bring back to you, dear reader, from this expedition in to the strange comic unknown is the evidence of my senses. A strange Irish man got up on stage on Friday, and made me and a room full of people laugh until we were in pain. That is the bottom line. Mostly.
‘Selfie’ is a hilarious show. Pat Shortt made me laugh to the point of physical endangerment. I couldn’t tell you exactly why though. I feel like a particle physicist trying to explain a coherent, all-encompassing theory of the universe. I have some pretty good theories, and I’ve built a facility in Switzerland to analyze them, but don’t expect a definitive answer in your lifetime. In Ireland, Pat Shortt is kind of a big deal. That’s not surprising in the slightest. The Irish Arts Centre felt like it was a far smaller venue than he is used to. His performance filled that place so easily, I’m fairly sure there must have been some overflow in to New Jersey. He’s starting to become known in America, most notably for his role in ‘Cripple of Inishmaan’ on Broadway last year. If this show is any indication, that American presence may be about to grow. We’ll see. In the meantime, if you are in need of a laugh that may result in surgery next month, you should definitely give ‘Selfie’ a look. But seriously, be warned. This show is dangerously funny.
‘Selfie’, starring Pat Shortt, runs at the Irish Arts Centre until September 27th. The full show schedule can be found at irishartscenter.org/theatre/selfie.html. It is part of Origin Theatre’s 1st Irish Theatre Festival. Tickets start at $35.
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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