Off-Broadway Review: “Kingfishers Catch Fire” at Irish Repertory Theatre

  • David Roberts, Chief New York Critic

Four years after the Ardeatine Caves Nazi Massacre, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty (a conflicted and contrite Sean Gormley) visits Colonel Herbert Kappler (a robust and tenacious Haskell King) in his cell in an old-fashioned prison in Gaeta, Southern Italy. Kappler, an SS Colonel and head of Hitler’s Gestapo in Rome, was responsible for the massacre of 355 Italians (a random number of random locals) in reprisal for an attack by resistance fighters resulting in the deaths of 33 men of the SS Police garrison in Rome. Kappler was also in charge of Jewish roundups for deportations to Auschwitz. O’Flaherty (“The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican”) was responsible for saving 6,500 Allied soldiers and Jews during World War II.

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This seemingly unlikely visit is the substance of Robin Glendinning’s “Kingfishers Catch Fire,” currently running at Irish Repertory Theatre’s W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre through Sunday, October 20, 2019. In the first act, the playwright provides extensive exposition about both characters and their “contributions” to the Second Word War – Keppler’s despicable contribution and O’Flaherty’s honorable contribution. At times, it seems this exposition is overlong and, perhaps, overwrought.

The play’s title is the title and first line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Petrarchan sonnet that deals with “becoming one’s highest self or acting to the highest of one’s capacity.” It is in the second act that Robin Glendinning turns to the theological, spiritual, and moral content of the visit. Kappler and O’Flahery engage in a lengthy discourse about right and wrong, motive, justice, war and peace, guilt and innocence, confession, forgiveness, and redemption.

The “moral gap” between Kappler and O’Flaherty seems to lessen as the two discuss God and Jesus and all things spiritual. What might be reprehensible as opposed to what might be redemptive becomes more ambiguous as the pair parley over the Colonel’s request to be blessed by the Monsignor. Clearly, the playwright intends to expand here the conversation about moral absolutes and moral ambiguity. As noble as this might be, this mostly academic exploration is difficult to accomplish given the principals involved.

Yes, human beings are complex and operate from vastly different moral perspectives. It is less clear, at least to this critic, that an individual complicit in the death of Jews during World War II falling to his knees asking for a blessing contributes substantially to the already perplexing conversation around moral ambiguity.

That said, under Kent Paul’s judicious direction, Haskell King and Sean Gormley faithfully explore the underbelly of moral absolutes and moral ambiguity with consummate performances. Mr. King seems more present in his role as the SS Colonel as he challenges his stage-mate to the extremes of moral combat. It is unfortunate that the work of these two skilled performers are unable – due to the script – to usher the members of the audience into any morally satisfying catharsis.

 

KINGFISHERS CATCH FIRE

The cast of “Kingfishers Catch Fire” includes Sean Gormley and Haskell King.

“Kingfishers Catch Fire” features set design by Edward Morris, costume design by Linda Fisher, lighting design by Matthew McCarthy, and sound design by Rob Rees.

“Kingfishers Catch Fire” runs at Irish Repertory Theatre’s W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre (132 West 22nd Street) through Sunday October 27, 2019 on the following performance schedule: Wednesdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; Thursdays at 7:00 p.m.; Fridays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Tickets to Kingfishers Catch Fire range from $45.00 - $50.00 and are available through Irish Rep’s box office at 212-727-2737 or online at www.irishrep.org. Running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes including one 15 minute intermission.

Photo: Haskell King in “Kingfishers Catch Fire” at Irish Repertory Theatre. Credit: Carol Rosegg.