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by Lucy Komisar

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK -- Jason Butler Harner, Gretchen Cleevely, Dearbhla Molly. Photo by Joan Marcus
Contents: November 13, 2000:
(1)"Juno and the Paycock"
(2)"The Hostage"

"Juno and the Paycock"
by Sean O'Casey, directed by John Crowley
Produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company
Gramercy Theatre, 127 East 23 Street at Lexington
Opened October 19, 2000
Closes December 24, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 26, 2000
There's a sense of hopelessness in Sean O'Casey's play about a family devastated by political and social small mindedness in Ireland.

First produced in 1924, its cry of pain and protest echoes in this Roundabout Theatre staging, etched brilliantly by stunning performances, especially the weary, compassionate Juno of Dearbhla Molloy. John Crowley, who directed Molloy in London's Donmar Warehouse production last year, has leavened the grimness with the dark comedic turns of two Chaplinesque dysfunctional men as Juno's husband and his drinking buddy.

Accentuating reality, Crowley opens the story with newsreel footage of the civil war that followed the 1921 establishment of the 26-county state of Ireland. From outside a Dublin tenement, he moves us into a grungy apartment with peeling wallpaper and paint, an easy chair with popping springs, a cot and iron stove, and a picture of the Virgin Mary on the wall.

Of the cast, only Molloy and Jim Norton (the Paycock) are Irish, but the others handle the accents well. This is an ensemble with no weak members; every character is vivid, absorbing.

The central story illustrates the suicidal destructiveness of the violent conflict between the IRA and the defenders of the treaty with England. Though a nationalist, O'Casey lets us know quickly what he thinks of the "diehard" solidarity that evokes the esteem of the men in the play.

It is personified by the crippled youth, Johnny Boyle (Jason Butler Harner), whose hip was destroyed in the 1916 Easter Week uprising against the British and whose arm was shattered in a more recent battle against former comrades who support the compromise. He's also been emotionally traumatized, most recently getting nightmares about another young man who's just been murdered.

Mindless pro-IRA blather comes from Johnny's father, Jack (played as a hollow, pretentious, strutting peacock (paycock) by Jim Norton. He calls himself "captain" because he once worked on a ship and gets pains in his legs when his wife mentions work. He pals around with another ne'er-do-well, sponger Joxer (portrayed with convincing shakes by Thomas Jay Ryan), whose advanced alcoholism gives him pink, rheumy eyes.

O'Casey, who was a communist, posits what this proletarian family ought to care about if it had its priorities straight. Daughter Mary (given a sweet, clear, innocent portrayal by Gretchen Cleevely) is on strike because one of her coworkers was unfairly fired. But her commitment to worker solidarity -- "a principle's a principle" -- evokes not respect from the men, but the notion that she must be a fool. As for the men's phony solidarity, the captain even stints his drinking buddy by giving him sausage grease to dip bread in while he eats the meat.

The subtext is that Ireland's political and social problems are laid to male arrogance and folly. In this play, the men are self-centered knaves and hypocrites, and the women pick up the pieces. Juno (Dearbhla Molloy), Jack's long-suffering wife is at wit's end as she graciously puts up with her shiftless husband. Molloy gives her a charm, mellowness and depth of character that illuminates how Ireland has survived on the strength of its women. At one point, she says, "what can God do against the stupidity of man?" and suggests that a child would do better having two mothers.

Mary has no better luck, betrayed by an incompetent, stuffy lawyer Charles Bentham (Liam Craig) and finding no solace in the thin loyalty of her erstwhile suitor, labor leader Jerry Devine (Norbert Leo Butz). Middle class, working class -- men are shallow disappointments. O'Casey underlines the feminist point by having Mary reading Ibsen's "A Doll's House" and "Ghosts." Yet, Crowley lets us understand that the men are not venal so much as ignorant, with a distorted sense of values and humanity.

The family fortunes seem to magically turn when Bentham arrives to announce that a cousin has left the captain a fortune. For O'Casey, this plot device is another way to show how these people live in a mirage. It also allows a subtle comment about religion and class. When the captain is poor, he puts down the Church; when he expects to be rich, he won't have anything bad said about it.

The main point, of course, is O'Casey's plea, still appropriate, which he puts in the mouth of Mrs. Tancred (Roberta Maxwell), whose son has been found riddled with bullets. She caustically rejects the notion that he died a noble death. We also learn that, in this murderous, unending cycle, he was the leader of an ambush that left another woman without sons. The bereft mother pleads, "Take away our hearts of stone...Take away this murder and hate...Give us they own eternal love." Presciently, O'Casey offered no hope that would occur.

"The Hostage"
by Brendan Behan, directed by Charlotte Moore
Produced by Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22 Street
Opened October 29, 2000
Closes December 10, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 28, 2000
Charlotte Moore has staged a delightful, lively, comic revival of Brendan Behan's political satire on the Irish "troubles." In this play, which premiered in Dublin in 1958 and was hit on Broadway two years later, Behan hits all the buttons, with special attention to the hypocrisy of practitioners of religion and the fanaticism of the IRA and Irish nationalists. Behind the mockery is a sadness at the slaughter of too many young men on both sides of the conflict.

Moore's production is part farce, part vaudeville, and always a romp, with traditional Irish songs and dancing turned into campy, mocking commentary. The production features a playful, exuberant, talented Irish and American cast.

Pat and Meg's bordello is situated, we can tell by a large black and white photo, on a dreary cobble-stoned street in Dublin. There's a piano at one corner, a white-metal bed in another, pictures of saints on the walls, and a staircase to the nether world.

The characters are all, well, characters. Meg (tartly portrayed by the able Terry Donnelly) is a tough floozie who runs the bordello with her husband Pat (Anto Nolan), an IRA partisan who won't let anyone forget that he spent nine years in prison. Another IRAer, Monsewer (James A. Stephens), which is how the locals pronounce monsieur -- though you suspect it's also Behan's judgment on the man's ideas -- parades in kilts, beret and bagpipe and issues commands to the residents as if they were troops. He's an Englishman who discovered his mother was Irish, then learned Irish through a correspondence course. For five years, he spoke only Irish, which required him to have interpreters when he rode the bus. He urges at one point, "Let's not run ourselves down, and praise God that we are white." So much for Behan's view of Irish nationalism.

Miss Gilchirst (a smartly comic Elizabeth Whyte), a "sociable worker for the St. Vincent De Paul Society," is having a liaison with Mr. Mulleady (Ciaran O'Reilly), who worked for the church till he was jailed for pilfering. She worries that exposure of their relationship will require her to go to confession, which she's just been to three times. Ropeen (Fidelma Murphy), an old prostitute, consoles her that sex is "only a sin if you enjoy it." So much for the hypocrisy of the church.

A Russian sailor (John O'Callaghan), who spends most of his time in his shorts and carrying a vodka bottle, seems to have been added as a foil to tweak the fanatics of the Cold War.

Suddenly, all their lives of fantasy are disturbed by real and bloody politics. With the news that the British the next morning will hang a young militant in Belfast, IRA fighters capture a young British soldier as a hostage and bring him to the bordello. But the odd denizens of that low-life retreat behave a lot more humanely than their fellows outside.

Leslie (Erik Singer) is a charming soldier who asserts his Britishness with references to Evelyn Waugh and sherry. Naturally, he falls for the other innocent, Theresa (Derdriu Ring), who recently left her convent school and now works as the housemaid.

Director Moore, who directs the cast of 16 with as much confidence and imagination as if the small theater were a Broadway stage, has sprinkled the play with sprightly jigs and corny melodies. Suddenly, the action stops and the characters break into "Danny Boy. Or, the condemned prisoner exclaims, "I've enjoyed myself till now. You know what they say, when Irish eyes are smiling...," and they all duly break into song. Gilchrist, in a feathered hat, warbles "I love my dear redeemer" -- as vaudeville. And Steven Ward, a black man who plays a gay "Princess Grace" (Kelly, of course), parades with a sign that says, "Keep Ireland black."

The whole notion of nationalism is spoofed with a cacophonous conga line with dancers waving a variety of flags, including the Russian's red one. A battle is waged with flashing lights, gunfire and Pat giving a play-by-play like a sports announcer.

Behan was jocularly aware of the effect his show might have. One character exclaims about the author, "Wait till we get him back home -- making fun of the movement!" [Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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