Review: “The Quare Land” at The Irish Repertory Theatre at the DR2 Theatre

David Roberts

Hugh Pugh (Peter Maloney) neither bathes nor opens his mail on any regular basis. He has not bathed in four years and his mail has been abandoned under the letter box “this decades.” Hugh succumbs to a bubble bath in anticipation of the visit from his ninety-one year old alcoholic brother. Hugh is ninety and is a small-time farmer living alone up a mountain in County Cavan Ireland. Things are going well for Hugh and his ablution – despite the pending visit – until his dog Jessie’s loud barking signals the arrival of an unexpected guest. The interaction between Hugh and this guest is the intriguing and often hysterical story line of John McManus’ “The Quare Land” which is part of the current Irish Repertory Theatre Season and is also part of the 1st Irish Festival.

The unexpected guest is building contractor Robert McNulty (Rufus Collins) who has been trying to reach out to Hugh through the snail mail piling up under Hugh’s letter box. When one is 90 and has not bathed in four years and receives a visitor other than one’s brother, there is only one strategy that works: stall long enough to scope out the guy and decide whether to trust him or not. And stall Hugh does and regales Robert with story after story about Hugh’s adventures and lovers until Robert discloses the reason for his visit and exposes his easily aroused temper. Once Hugh knows how to handle Robert, the fun of John McManus’ play begins – all taking place in Hugh’s bathroom with Hugh in the tub throughout: rubber pig with squeaker and bubbles included.

The exchange between Hugh and Robert is so engaging and authentic it would be a shame to say much about the content of the extended conversation except that the playwright skillfully switches the “control” of the conversation back and forth between the characters and keeps the audience guessing who will “overcome” throughout. Robert wants to purchase land Hugh owns so he can complete his eighteen-hole golf course next to his upscale hotel catering to vacationing Brits. This is land Hugh does not even know he owns but discovers it was a gift from his friend Artie who stole money (and his favourite flat cap) from Hugh, felt guilty, and deeded Hugh the piece of land in Ballinamore in County Leitrim to Hugh.

Once Hugh knows how badly Robert wants his “great” land, Hugh keeps upping the price and the demands he makes on Roberts to seal the deal are outrageous and very funny. At first Hugh considers Robert to be greedy: “And I have all the time going. For I’m not a greedy haveral like you are, for I’m contented with me few cows and me pension. I can't stand under your generations attachment to worldly goods. Big jeeps and huge houses and foreign trips and fake tits. You don't own the things you buy, the things you buy end up owning you. Stand under?” But then, the tables turn and Hugh becomes greedy. All of this banter leads up to a surprise ending as Hugh’s brother pulls up outside the house.

Under Ciarán O’Reilly’s steady and thoughtful direction, Peter Maloney and Rufus Collins make Laurel and Hardy look like amateurs with a comedic repartee that keeps the audience in stitches – until the surprise ending changes the mood drastically. Their banter is fast-paced and physical and the epitome of good timing. Charlie Corcoran’s set is compact and appropriately whimsical and costumes by David Toser and lighting by Michael Gottlieb equally appropriate and supportive of the action.

 

 

THE QUARE LAND

“The Quare Land” stars Rufus Collins as Rob, and Peter Maloney as Hugh. Scenic design is by Charlie Corcoran; costume design by David Toser; lighting design by Michael Gottlieb; sound design by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab; properties by Deirdre Brennan; and special effects by J&M Special Effects, Bodhan Bushell.  The Production Stage Manager is Pamela Brusoski. Production photos by

“The Quare Land” will be performed through Sunday, November 15, 2015 at The Irish Repertory Theatre (at the DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street). The performance schedule is Tuesdays at 7pm; Wednesdays at 3pm and 8pm; Thursdays at 7pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm; and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets to “The Quare Land” are priced at $70.00 and are on sale now through The Irish Rep box office by calling 212-727-2737, or online at www.irishrep.org. Running time is 90 minutes without intermission.

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.

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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. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: ‘Celebrity Autobiography’ and the Modern Warholian Dilemma

Thomas Burns Scully

How many times have you seen a hardback copy of a celebrity’s life-story and thought to yourself: good god, what’s the point? It certainly seems that in addition to everyone being entitled to their Warholian fifteen-minutes, these days everyone also gets five-hundred pages to rehash those fifteen minutes. Derek Hough, Dustin Diamond (alias Screech), Dog the Bounty Hunter, and the Terry the terrier (who played Toto in ‘The Wizard of Oz’) are among the not-so illustrious names who have given us life-stories that we never asked for. There is, of course, every chance that these works are enlightening, endearing, unexpectedly astounding contributions to the literary canon. It seems unlikely though.

‘Celebrity Autobiography’ is a show which, largely, confirms this. This team, headed up by Eugene Pack and Dayle Reyfel lifts the words of pampered celebs off the page and on to the stage, often exposing them for the hollow vessels that they are. They speak aloud passages from celebrity autobiographies, and astound audiences with the vapid redundancy of much of the disgustingly rich and famous’s grey matter (or at least the parts responsible for sentence construction). They did a special edition of their show for Origin Theatre’s 1st Irish Festival this weekend, and much fun was had.

The cast (which rotates show to show) consisted of many faces and names people will be familiar with. Tate Donovan (’24’), Jackie Hoffman (‘On the Town’), Geraldine Hughes (‘Jerusalem’, ‘Belfast Blues’), Maulik Pancholy (’30 Rock’), Michael Urie (‘Ugly Betty’, ‘Buyer and Cellar’), Alan Zweibel (‘SNL’), as well as creators Reyfel and Pack were taking up the spotlight on Saturday, giving air to some fatuous celebrity prose. The show is essentially simple in structure, similar in format to a sketch show. Actors come to the stage and read, either as a solo, or part of an ensemble from celebrity autobiographies. The works of choice ranged from the false-modesty of Justin Beiber, through the blunt stupidity of Trumps and Kardashians, to the high-flown psychodrama of the Fisher-Taylor-Burton love-triangle-come-car-wreck. Detours were made that compared the strange dietary tips of Sly Stallone and Dolly Parton, and the deliriously pampered lives of various dogs of the stage and screen. Laughs were had all around.

‘Celebrity Autobiography’s conceit is so simple as to be infuriating, like ‘Cards Against Humanity’ it has an “anyone could have thought of this” feel to it. That’s not to take away from the skill involved in carefully cherry-picking and arranging the extracts for dramatic and comic effect, but like improv and garage rock and roll, there’s a certain amount of “I could do that” going through your head while you watch. Certainly, a lot of the show consists of attacking low-hanging fruit. Egos as bloated as Trump’s, Beiber’s or the Kardashians’ are hardly difficult to hit, a child with a Thesaurus and CNN could put together a half-decent roast of any of these. However, the cleverness of the show is in damning these people with their own (or at the very least, their ghostwriter’s) words. There’s something very pleasing at listening to barely-likable celebrities making themselves look like air-headed idiots. You will definitely laugh, and laugh a lot.

Apart from the laughter, there are a few points of concern I have for the show. In the program they quite plainly state “We’re not trying to be mean… they wrote ‘em”, and yet, I couldn’t help but nose a certain amount of mean-spiritedness in the air. Naturally I have no love lost for Donald Trump, that man demands more ridicule than could be mined out of the lifetimes of nine George Carlins. But cherry-picking the words of Diana Ross and Dolly Parton, flirts with vindictiveness. I’m not overly fond of either, but they have always struck me as naieve, rather than morally repugnant. And, while the show does not lambaste them, rather magnify said naivety, there is a certain extent to which it makes one feel that any celebrity autobiography read out like B-Movie dialogue would sound like… well, B-Movie dialogue. And that could potentially give ‘Celebrity Autobiography’ a license to print well-selected slander. For the record, I don’t think this is the case, the show has accrued sizable goodwill over the near decade it has existed, and you don’t get that by burning bridges. But you do have to wonder what could happen.

The extent to which ‘Celebrity Autobiography’ could be seen as mean is, largely, negligible. The most important part of this review is the earlier part, where I told you how funny it is. It’s very funny. The performers they get are top notch. I saw Jackie Hoffman in the final performance of ‘On The Town’ two weeks ago and she was stellar, a highlight. She is equally good here, reading various parts from the pantheon of celebrity. All the performers are excellent, as you would expect from the ranks that they draw their actors. I will say that it is hard to see exactly what the connection is to Origin’s 1st Irish Festival, though. None of the performers or creators are Irish, and none of the celebrities lampooned were Irish, and yet the show is quite decidedly part of the festival.

Alas, it remains a mystery to me. That said, if your only concern is watching talented people reading the ill-advised biographizing of semi-literate public figures, this is very much the show for you. It’s distilled comedy in easy to absorb snorts, geared for maximum laughs, and not much else. It seems like it’s going to run forever, so pick a date and buy a ticket. I can recommend it.

‘Celebrity Autobiography’ returns to the Triad Theatre on November 23rd at 7:00PM. Tickets available at celebrityautobiography.com costing $40 - $80. Details of the 1st Irish Festival can be found at 1stIrish.org.

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. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

2nd Opinion Review: ‘Pondling’ at 59E59. A Vicious Debunking of the Myths of Childhood

Thomas Burns Scully

We’re all very quick to idealize childhood. So often we’ll tell the young that they are going through the best time of their life, and other such easily refuted demi-facts. As the creators of ‘South Park’, of all people, are quick to remind us, childhood is a chaotic, difficult, sometimes incredibly bitter time of our lives. We’re still so fresh and raw as children, like a cut exposed to alcohol, we feel everything intensely. It may seem like the best time of life from the outside, but if I’m honest with myself, I remember my childhood hurting like a bitch sometimes. I remember the despair at realizing my own mortality, the bitterness of being betrayed by friends, and other such precious, personality shaping experiences. Of course, it wasn’t all bad. Actually I’d say my childhood was pretty good, but my point is, childhood stings, and we forget that too quickly. ‘Pondling’, (Produced by Gúna Nua and Ramblinman) a new one woman show, now playing at 59E59 Theatres as part of Origin Theatre’s 1st Irish Festival, explores that view of childhood, and tilts it through prism of a gravely unnerving young mind.

‘Pondling’ is the story of Madeleine, an awkward young girl, somewhere between the age of nine and twelve. She explains, through the vivid prose of the show’s writer/performer Genevieve Hulme-Beaman, her life as a neglected farmer’s granddaughter, and her aspirations for love and womanhood. She pines after a cool fourteen year-old boy called Johnno, loathes his long-armed girlfriend, and longs to have a cool mother who looks like an aerobics instructor. As aspirational as she is, she seems completely unaware that she is going through possibly the most awkward awkward phase that any girl has ever gone through. She is obviously strange, and idiosyncratic in behavior. She longs to be a graceful swan-girl, yet is seemingly oblivious to the fact that she is a can-crushing chicken-whisperer whose actions border on psychopathic. A tale of obsession unfolds, as seen through the turquoise lenses of childhood.

Genevieve Hulme-Beaman in PONDLING, produced by Gúna Nua Theatre Company and Ramblinman for Origin Theatre Co’s 1st Irish Theatre Festival at 59E59 Theaters. Photos by Paul McCarthy

Genevieve Hulme-Beaman is undeniably impressive. Her focus as a performer is immediately obvious, and her command of body and voice is enthralling. She moves around the stage with a spring in her skip, casually inflicting damage on her environment in the way that children are wont to do. When she stops and her seething rage is fighting for escape, her movements become uncomfortably grotesque. Her voice throughout is loud and rarely guarded, seemingly too much for the black box space around her. She is every inch the difficult pre-teen. Her writing, as far as capturing the lexicon and temperament of an aspirational young-girl is faultless. Plotting lunges from point to point, pulling the audience with it and leading them deeper and deeper in to the unknowable bog of a mysterious and unwieldy child’s psyche. Hulme-Beaman is a force to be reckoned with.

‘Pondling’ is undoubtedly in the top twenty percent of one-person shows that I’ve seen, I should get that out of the way now, so that the criticism I do have for the show is placed in proper perspective. ‘Pondling’ earns its ticket price, which, I feel, is always the most important arbiter of choice for a theatre piece. Hulme-Beaman’s work needs no apology. There are, however, moments where the show drags. It runs to an approximate seventy-minutes, but you could easily be forgiven for thinking it was longer. Occasionally, somewhere between the writing and the performance, an overdrawn ponderousness emerges, and moments stretch on for minutes that could just as easily be dealt with in seconds. The ending also feels off, somehow. It doesn’t feel wrong or unearned, and it ties up all the threads of the story, but it feels abrupt, and oddly unsatisfying. Perhaps, though, that’s emblematic of the journey through childhood. Madeleine lurches from one emotion to the next, from one experience to the next, almost stream of consciousness-style. The ending is well in keeping with that mode. And quite often our life experiences, particularly those growing up, are sudden, unsatisfying and don’t live up to the power of our imagination. Perhaps that’s the ultimate message of the show, in which case the ending is perfect.

Origin Theatre’s 1st Irish Festival is certainly shaping up nicely. Out of what I’ve seen already I have adored ‘Selfie’ and gotten quite the kick out of ‘Little Thing Big Thing’. I didn’t love ‘Stoopdreamer’, but two out of three isn't bad. Add ‘Pondling’ in to the mix, and three out of four is even better. It is a marvel of a show about a girl’s childhood, and is willing to go to much stranger, darker places than most shows on the subject are. The story can be viewed two ways, as a difficult week or two in the life of a young girl, or as the prequel to a major episode of legitimately dangerous psychopathy. You’d be a fool not to find that engaging. Hulme-Beaman has been performing this show for over two years now, and the practice, and numerous accolades the show has won have allowed it to settle firmly in to her marrow. It would be unnerving to run in to her in to the street after the show, is what I mean by that. ‘Pondling’ is well good, and easily outstrips any mild misgivings I might have. You’d be well advised to give it a look.

‘Pondling’ runs at 59E59 Theaters through to October 4th. Tickets start at $17.50. A full show schedule and purchasing links can be found at 59e59.org It is produced by Gúna Nua and Ramblinman as part of Origin Theatre’s 1st Irish Festival. 

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. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: Pat Shortt’s ‘Selfie’ at the Irish Arts Centre. Good God It’s Funny. Not Sure Why.

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. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS

2nd Opinion Review: ‘Stoopdreamer’ at The Cell. A Whiskey Shot of Brooklyn Nostalgia.

Thomas Burns Scully

It doesn't happen often but sometimes two of our writers see the same show. Because no one's opinion is ever the same, we like to post both reviews. Enjoy!

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. But that’s never stopped anyone from indulging. A few days ago people were posting online about the twentieth anniversary of the PlayStation, and I will admit to a few sentimental skipped heartbeats listening to the Startup music for the first time in over a decade. And I’m not naturally given to nostalgia, in fact I abhor it in so many ways, but you can’t avoid it. I swear by the words of Eric Idle, who when speaking about Monty Python reunions, referenced the Beatles, saying “You don’t want a Beatles reunion, what you want is to be young again, when the Beatles were new and exciting.” That’s essentially how I feel about ‘Stoopdreamer’ by Patrick Fenton, my second visit to Origin’s 1st Irish Festival. It’s not a poorly written, poorly intentioned or poorly acted piece, but it’s so mired in nostalgia it makes me uncomfortable.

‘Stoopdreamer’ tells the story of Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn and its gentrification from old Irish neighborhood to modern hipster-heaven. The story is recounted through the eyes of three Windsor Terrace residents having a quiet drink in an old working-class bar. They tell their stories directly to the audience, indulging us with ‘Pepperidge Farm’ style reminiscences for an hour and change. One is the bartender, speaking gently about the old faces and the bulldozing of delis. Another is an ex-cop, a child of the late-fifties, remembering jukeboxes and romantic teenage interludes. The last is a woman who has since moved away, chasing a lost childhood bad-boy, and talking fondly about the families she grew up with. There is a pervading air of melancholy as they recount the disappearance of their old neighborhood, and an angry edge of pain as they describe their own ineffectuality in the face of the wrecking machinery of change.

It’s not a bad play, but I have to be honest, I found the whole affair rather dull. There’s nothing inherently wrong with nostalgia. As Alan Bennet might say, it can be an amiable vice. But it’s often accompanied by two unwelcome bedfellows: misdirected anger towards the young, and the missed understanding that almost all happiness is based on someone else’s unhappiness. That’s definitely the case here, not to an unrivaled extent, but enough to make me feel uncomfortable. You see, it’s great to talk fondly about the old neighborhood, to remember with passion a time gone by, and to remember its unfair, and ruthless destruction is noble. An understanding of what comes before is essential. But then there’s seeing the symptoms of an unwanted change as causes of an unwanted change.

Patrick Fenton’s oral history of Brooklyn gentrification paints incoming Brooklynites in a wholly poor light. Jack O’Connell’s Bartender character ridicules them for their craft beers, food co-ops, and ostensibly blames them for pushing people out of their homes. He even goes as far as to say that they don’t care about what came before. Now, I’m not about to glorify new-wave Brooklyn, like most developments, it’s a mixed bag. But speaking as someone who moved to Brooklyn in the last four years, I didn’t do it out of spite, I didn’t do it to displace anyone, and I certainly do care about what came before. I moved to Brooklyn because I couldn’t afford to live in Manhattan. When rents go up the only people who win are landlords. So the demonization of the incoming masses is a futile and unfair act, when the real ire should be reserved for the evils of the real-estate market. 

Perhaps it’s unfair of me to criticize this in a play about working-class stiffs, about people who perhaps don’t take in the whole picture and can only process the immediate effects of a problem as they are happening to them. But then, surely, isn’t that talking down to people? Assuming that people are less intelligent than you, I’m fairly sure that’s condescending. And a play that purports to offer a wider perspective on the human impact of gentrification and fails to see it from more than one, wholly valid and important, but limited perspective, is surely missing something. 

This brings me to my second major problem with ‘Stoopdreamer’, its flawed golden age thinking. Fenton does paint post-prohibition Irish Brooklyn as a kind of golden age. Like all golden ages, it didn’t exist. Yes, we remember it beautifully, we loved the people, and we loved much of what we did, but everyone has to acknowledge that the happiest times of our lives were likely imperfect and flawed, both personally and on a grander scale. Selective memory is a powerful force, and allows us to forget day-to-day heartbreaks, being bullied at school, scraped knees and feeling trapped by youth. I refuse to believe that the era of Brooklyn painted in ‘Stoopdreamer’ is superior in every way to the Brooklyn that exists now. We’re talking about a place and time that was pre-civil rights, that had only just allowed women to vote, where alcoholism and crime were rampant, where people did industrial work their whole lives that destroyed their bodies and minds, and to want more for yourself was tantamount to class warfare. The play touches briefly on the self-inflicted crushing of working-class aspiration, but it never seems to fully acknowledge it as a crack in its golden age.

There’s a cartoon going around the web, that has done in various forms for some time, of a group of Native Americans watching a European ship arriving in 1492. One of them turns to the other and starts complaining about immigrants coming and ruining the country. You could say a similar thing about gentrification. Go back far enough and every bit of land you’ve lived on belonged to someone else. Whether it was the Irish, African-Americans, Hobos, Native Americans, wild animals, dinosaurs… you may think I’m being facetious, but I’m not, I’m perfectly serious, all our land is stolen from someone or something, and they are dead or moved on because we live where we do. That’s a fact that all of us have to make peace with. To paint one living situation in one place and time as the natural order is to say that none of the others were valid, and I find that, even if unintentional, disrespectful.

As a documentation of a bygone era now fading from living memory, ‘Stoopdreamer’ is fine, it’s a perfectly adequate piece. It’s actors are solid. Jack O’Connell, Bill Cwikowski and Robin Leslie Brown all turn in above-par work. The presentation of the piece is interesting enough to keep you engaged. But I can’t quite get over my own personal biases against the piece. Perhaps I’m just getting tired of hearing older generations glorified, and my generation ridiculed. No one’s perfect, but it seems to be acceptable to pretend that a generation that caused a world war, and didn’t let black people vote is. I respect my elders, I do, but sometimes we have to call a spade a thing that can, at times, be used to bury bodies. The older people in the audience, who probably lived through the time being described, seemed to really love the show. So, as a nostalgia piece, ‘Stoopdreamer’, it seems, is perfect. But as an opinionated piece of theatre, I find it flawed. Not deeply flawed, but flawed in a way that irks me in just the way that I don’t like to be irked.

‘Stoopdreamer’ runs at The Cell through September 27th as part of Origin Theatre’s 1st Irish Festival. Ticketing and show info can be found at thecelltheatre.org/stoopdreamer/

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 

 

Review: “Stoopdreamer” at the cell part of the 1st Irish 2015 Festival

David Roberts

Playwright Pat Fenton's "Stoopdreamer" - part of the 1st Irish 2015 Festival – holds special meaning to the Irish American community of Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn and it holds an equally special meaning to all residents of urban communities who have experienced the process of gentrification over the past quarter century (or more) – gentrification by outsiders and by urban planning and development.

“Stoopdreamer” is an immersive theatre piece that takes place in Farrell’s Bar and Grill in Windsor Terrace, the last remaining Irish saloon from the pre-gentrification era. Jimmy the Bartender (Jack O’Connell), neighborhood resident and regular Billy Coffey Bill Cwikowski), and former resident Janice Joyce (Robin Leslie Brown) up from Toms River hoping to find her old flame Billy regale the bar patrons (the audience at the cell) with memories, memorials, and dreams. After Roberts Moses decided to displace 1,252 families with his massive 1945 Prospect Expressway Project, the community fell prey to a progressive loss in established businesses and the influx of residents looking for affordable property.

The loss of Windsor Terrace Landmarks and the incursion by bargain-seeking property buyers foreshadowed the loss of tradition and community ownership. The disappearance of the M. J. Smith Funeral Home, the Sanders Movie Theatre (later the Pavilion), and other iconic Windsor Terrace landmarks not only provided space for high-rise apartments but also sapped the spirits of the “stoopdreamers” who watched their beloved neighborhood diminish.

Under the even hand of director Kira Simring, the cast of “Stoopdreamer” create three believable and authentic characters whose stories counterpoint the gradual development of Windsor Terrace and give flesh and blood to the historical account of the disappearance of a community and the dreams of its denizens. Jack O’Connell’s portrayal of Jimmy the Bartender is engaging and Mr. O’Connell gives voice to all the characters he includes in Jimmy’s narration. Bill Cwikowski handily embodies the character of Billy Coffey who chose the family tradition of becoming a police officer over his dream of becoming a writer. And Robin Leslie Brown’s portrayal of Billy’s old girlfriend Janice Joyce is filled with heartfelt passion and yearning. Billy and Janice’s meeting at the play’s end embodies the collision of past and present and symbolizes the possibility of future – for the couple and for the community.

It must not go unnoticed that the residents of Windsor Terrace once gentrified the land owned by the Canarsie Indians through a purchase by John Vanderbilt and later development by real estate developer William Bell. And it must not be unnoticed that the same discontent with the way things had been in his family for generations, led Billy Coffey to eventually separate and individuate from that family tradition by becoming a writer. Might it not have been the same wanderlust and desire to “better” oneself that led the residents of Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights to begin to gentrify Windsor Terrace in the 1980s?

"Stoopdreamer" is an engaging look at the process of gentrification and the loss of dreams of those who sat on their stoops and watched all they held dear slowly disappear.

STOOPDREAMER

“Stoopdreamer” stars Jack O'Connell, Bill Cwikowski, and Robin Leslie Brown with a production team includes Gertjan Houben (production design), Chris Steckel (assistant production design), M. Florian Staab (sound design), Siena Zoé Allen (costume design), Samantha Keogh (Dramaturg), Louisa Pough (stage manager) and Jane Davis (assistant stage manager). Production photos by Marianne Driscoll.

STOOPDREAMER runs September 4 - 27, Wednesday - Saturday at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday & Sunday at 3:00 p.m. the cell is located at 338 W 23rd St, between 8th & 9th Avenues -- accessible from the C & E trains at 23rd Street. Tickets are $25, available at 800-838-3006 or www.thecelltheatre.org. Running time is 60 minutes without intermission