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Glenda Frank


“The Busy World Is Hushed” by Keith Bunin.
Directed by Mark Brokaw.
Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., NYC
June 25-July 9, 2006
“The Field” by John B. Keane
Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly
The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22 St., NYC
June 1 – Aug. 6, 2006
Wed.-Sat. 8 PM; Wed., Sat., Sun. 3 PM.
For tickets call 212-727-2737, $50-55.
Reviewed by Glenda Frank

It’s not only fanaticism that’s keeping God in the news. The American wing of the Episcopal Church recently voted the controversial Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who supports gay ordination, its leader. God has been a hot topic on Broadway, and now in this slow July, off-Broadway brings us two remarkable plays about religion, love and survival. At Playwrights Horizons, Keith Bunin in “The Busy World is Hushed” goes where few playwrights dare to tread, and at the Irish Repertory Theatre, “The Field,” by John B. Keane, whose first hit dates back to 1959, is enjoying posthumous success. You don’t have to have faith to find these dramas good theatre. In fact, these productions may work even better if you don’t.

“The Busy World Is Hushed” is a play about longing. It opens with a job interview and an ethical question about authorship. The Reverend Hannah (Jill Clayburgh in a turned collar) needs a ghost writer to articulate her thoughts – and her graduate students’ research – on a newly discovered gospel. There are perhaps 100 gospels, she informs Brandt (Hamish Linklater), the handsome young writer who has applied for the job, but only four were chosen by the church as authentic. She thinks this manuscript may predate the others. “What exactly is your relationship to Jesus Christ?” she demands. And he – like us – wonders if she is permitted to ask him that, but he takes the job.

This is a play that pulls no punches. The three characters quickly get down to honest talk about their sorrows and joys, about loss and death. Bunin keeps a light touch so the play never gets bogged down, and he has no stand to take, no issue to pound home. He is the real thing – a playwright with something to say and the talent to make us want to hear it. He knows how to spice up the conversation with confrontations and how to write love scenes. The performances under the direction of the always able Mark Brokaw are pitch-perfect. The play offers a new, meatier role for Jill Clayburgh – and she proves herself admirably.

The third character – the apex of the love triangle -- is Thomas (Luke MacFarlane), Hannah’s sexy, charismatic but errant son who has tried half a dozen careers and has “no shortage of escape plans.” He and Brandt keep looking each other’s way, but Brandt holds back until Hannah encourages him. Selflessly she wants her son loved. Selfishly, she wants him in the room down the hall, to be able to watch as his room keeps changing: Salvation Army sneakers, books from the Strand, the murmur of his voice as she passes.

For a while it works. The lost young men step into each other’s lives. They offer support, passion, and trust, enough trust for them to discover how deeply mismatched they are. Come wander with me, Thomas says. I was building something permanent that would last fifty years in my head, Brandt explains. “All we got was this little glimpse of each other. You can’t argue where there’s real disagreement,” they conclude. When Thomas leaves and Brandt’s father dies sooner than expected of cancer – Brandt’s loses compounded – he and Hannah open new discourses that blend the confessional, emotional, theological and compassionate before they part ways. Hannah, looking like a tiny, aging woman of sorrow and faith, insists on the grace of God. Brandt closes by admitting that he can’t see God, just the empty space where He is supposed to be. Keith Bunin has written a moving play that touches both head and heart. “The Busy World Is Hushed” closed on schedule on July 9.

“The Field,” directed by Ciarán O’Reilly with a inspired set by Charles Corcoran and fine lighting by Jason Lyons, is one of the best of the Irish Repertory Theatre offerings. It’s a daringly honest play about desperation – and survival. Set in Carriagthomond, a small village in southwestern Ireland, it tells the story of a struggling farmer and the four-acre field he rents through the eyes of Maimie Flanagan (Orlagh Cassidy), a barkeep’s still beautiful wife who finds herself pregnant with her tenth child in almost that many years. These characters are observant Catholics whose faith weighs heavily in their conscience.

Bull McCabe (Marty Maguire), the farmer, is an unwashed, unpleasant bully who isn’t afraid to use the large staff he carries – or to beat his wife or kill a stray mule that is eating his grass. He has many family relations in town who will swear to any lie. He’s proud of his heifers and proud that he transformed a patch of rented field into rich fodder for them. He has been saving penny by penny to buy the land, which is his only access to water. He rejoices when the Widow Butler decides to sell it, and he rigs the auction to ensure her a fair price but one that he can afford. Mick Flanagan (Paul Nugent) is in on the scheme too – for his own profit.

And then the wealthy William Dee arrives. Although he’s Galway-born, he sounds British and lives in England. He wants to cement the field. McCabe and his son overreact; they have been swallowing their own rage and frustration for too many years. The police canvass the neighborhood for witnesses, and the priest (Craig Baldwin) delivers a powerful sermon about righteousness and morality. The villagers are forced to make a terrible decision.

There are many ways to approach the play. It’s likely Keane wrote “The Field” with the The Great Famine in mind, when over one million died of starvation and two million emigrated from Ireland. The New Jersey state curriculum on genocide and the Holocaust has a unit dedicated to The Potato Famine, which many historians believe was caused by the complicity of the British government, which was exporting massive quantities of food. In the 1990 film of the play, also titled “The Field,” Dee has become an American, the conflict is between traditional rural values and the contemporary world, and the theme is pride. Richard Harris was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Bull, who was more a force of nature more than a man.

If we approach the play as a personal drama without Irish history as backdrop, “The Field” at the Irish Repertory Theatre is a bit long and rambling, but it holds its own as the sad, tragic story of a flawed man fighting to keep his family and his life’s work safe. When we remember that the field is the size of a large building lot in many areas of the United States and not what we in America consider a working farm, the poignancy is magnified. The multiple moral centers and the ultimate realization of the impassable gap between the religious ideal and their own economic self-preservation provide thematic transcendence. “The Field” is a small, summer jewel.

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