16 October 2015

'The Quare Land'

Historically, the area around Union Square in Lower Manhattan was the center of New York City’s theater district around the turn of the 20th century.  Today, live performance has returned to the neighborhood (along with rock venues and multiplex movie houses) and I’ve lived in the area (part of the Flatiron District) almost since I moved to the city 41 years ago.  I’ve seen performances in many of the theaters that have long been here (the Classic Stage Company, on East 13th Street since 1973) or moved here after gentrification (the Union Square Theatre, remodeled as a theater in 1984, home of the Roundabout Theatre Company for seven years, and now a commercial house since 1991)—even at least one that opened and then closed after a brief run (the Century Center for the Performing Arts, 1997-2007).  In 1996, producer Daryl Roth purchased the defunct Union Square Savings Bank at the corner of Union Square East and 15th Street, a 1907 granite Greek Revival temple, complete with soaring columns and immense bronze doors.  Converted into the Daryl Roth Theatre, it has been most often home to expansive physical-theater spectaculars like De La Guarda, which played there for over six years from 1998 to 2004.  In 2002, Roth remodeled a space at the rear of the building, along East 15th Street, into the 99-seat DR2 Theatre, which has operated as a rental space and is occupied this season by the Irish Repertory Theatre while it renovates its regular home on West 22nd Street in Chelsea.  For the first time since either space has opened, I finally went to DR2 to see the current Irish Rep production, the U.S. première of John McManus’s The Quare Land.

Soon after I returned to New York from my last trip out of town, my frequent theater companion, Diana, called to go over some potential theater events she thought we should consider.  Among them was one with which she was especially intrigued, a recent Irish play that was going to make its American début with the Irish Rep.  Something about the play’s description caught her attention, so I agreed to go with her.  (It didn’t hurt that DR2 is almost right across the square from my apartment, a five minute walk.)  The performances of Quare Land began with previews on 22 September and the production opened on 1 October; Diana and I met at DR2 for the 8 p.m. show on Friday, 9 October.  The McManus première, the Irish Repertory Theatre’s first production of the season (and their first in the troupe’s temporary home) is scheduled to close on 15 November.

The Irish Rep production of The Quare Land was developed as part of the company’s Reading Series in 2014.  The Irish Repertory Theatre held a reading on 25 April on the Francis J. Greenburger Main Stage of the theater’s regular home on West 22nd Street.  Before that, the play was first presented as a reading in the 2010 Galway Theatre Festival by the Galway Arts Centre in Galway, Ireland.  Later that year, it was staged by the Galway Arts Festival and the Decadent Theatre Company, Galway, and then toured Ireland with Decadent in 2011 and again in 2013.  In addition to being the play’s U.S. première and the Irish Repertory’s inaugural production of the 2015-16 season, the 2015 mounting is also part of the seventh annual Origin Theatre Company’s 1st Irish  Fesitival 2015, the only Irish theater festival in the U.S.  The Irish Rep production won prizes for Best Director (Ciarán O’Reilly), Best Design (Charlie Corcoran, set designer), Best Playwright  (McManus), and the Special Jury Prize for cast member Peter Maloney (for his unique contributions to New York theater and his performance in Quare Land). 

Playwright John McManus, 35, is from Ballyconnell (population, a little over 1,000) in County Cavan.  (The Irish dramatist is not related to the Tennessee-born fiction writer of the same name who’s three years older.)  His first play was No Hate Going to Loss, a radio drama which won the RTÉ/P. J. O’Connor Award (an honor given for radio plays by the Irish national broadcasting organization, Raidió Teilifís Éireann) in 2005.  McManus tied for third place in the same competition in 2008 with his radio drama Will You Swap Knees With Me?  The writer’s first stage play, A Lock of Fierce Roars, received a public reading by Galway’s Druid Theatre Company in 2008 and he was in the prestigious, invitation-only New Playwrights Programme at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, which he completed in 2013.  His next play, Klondike, is scheduled for staging next year.  The Quare Land is McManus’s first work to be produced in the United States (or anywhere abroad, I believe). 

Before becoming a produced playwright, McManus had no interest in writing or theater.  He graduated from high school and immediately went to work with his father as a plasterer.  (McManus never went to college.)  “I usen’t even go to plays,” said the novice writer.  “I hadn’t even listened to a radio play before doing the one for RTÉ.”  He never studied literature and he knows no other writers and nothing about the fabled theater troupes of his native country.  In 2001, he found himself out of work and on “the dole” (Anglo-Irish for ‘welfare’) where a counsellor advised him to take a course of some kind.  Even though he had no notion to become a writer, he chose a program in screenwriting in Westport, 95 miles west of Ballyconnell in County Mayo, because he’d never lived away from home and Westport looked like a likely place to give it a try.  (Not only was his voyage to New York for the Irish Rep’s Quare Land McManus’s first time outside Ireland, it was his first time in an airplane.  “I had nowhere to go,” he deadpanned.) 

A year later, McManus was back in Ballyconnell with a few screenplays but got nowhere trying to get anyone interested in them.  He went back to plastering and found that, just as the young Tennessee Williams wrote poetry on the tops of shoe boxes at his job, McManus could indulge his imagination by writing his ideas on pieces of the cement bags.  Still, the tyro playwright wasn’t getting far, except to the pub on weekends, until his mother saw a notice for the RTÉ/P. J. O’Connor radio drama award.  She sent in for an application which McManus received just before the deadline, and he sat down and composed a play over the weekend.  He delivered No Hate Going to Loss (a County Cavan phrase that means ‘it’s a cold day’) to Dublin in person.  It won the prize and one of the judges suggested the playwright contact the Druid Theatre.  (When asked how he came to playwriting, McManus answers:  “My mother made me.”)

It took McManus three years to write the letter, but his play A Lock of Fierce Roars was chosen for a public reading.  Meanwhile, the building business in Cavan took a nosedive and McManus again found himself on the dole, giving him plenty of time to write.  Except that he couldn’t interest any theaters in his work and was about to quit the endeavor when he read about the Galway Theatre Festival.  He sent in The Quare Land which received a reading before an audience and that led to a full production at the Galway Arts Festival, a more prominent venue.  “I was actually about to give up writing,” McManus confessed, “I’d decided it would be my last attempt.”  Now a fulltime playwright, McManus says of his change of occupation: “I threw in the trowel.”  (By all accounts, the playwright in person is witty, charming, and likable.  “I used to have a rule funny first everything else second,” he says, “now I say dramatic first, funny second, then everything else.”)

The Irish Repertory Theatre, now in its 27th season, was founded by Ciarán O’Reilly (director of The Quare Land) and Charlotte Moore in 1988 and began presenting works of Irish and Irish-American classic and contemporary theater with Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars.  It’s the only North American stage company devoted to this repertoire.  In 1995, after seven years of wandering from theater to theater, the company made its permanent Off-Broadway home in Chelsea on three renovated floors of a former warehouse, housing the Francis J. Greenburger Main Stage, an intimate, L-shaped, 137-seat thrust house, and the smaller W. Scott McLucas Studio, a black box seating 60.  In the Irish Rep’s own words, it

provides a context for understanding the contemporary Irish-American experience through evocative works of theater, music, and dance.  This mission is accomplished by staging the works of Irish and Irish-American classic and contemporary playwrights, encouraging the development of new works focused on the Irish and Irish-American experience, and producing the works of other cultures interpreted through the lens of an Irish sensibility. 

In a New York magazine profile, Betsy Schiffman observed that a “typical five-show season might find Eugene O’Neill [a company favorite] and Frank McCourt side-by-side or Oscar Wilde with contemporary dramatist John O’Keefe.” The company has also presented works by such artists as Brian Friel (who died on 2 October), George Bernard Shaw, and Conor McPherson.  It also produces the works of other cultures, such as that of Welsh poet-playwright Dylan Thomas, interpreted from an Irish perspective.  Also on Irish Rep’s stages over the seasons have appeared some distinguished actors, including Ally Sheedy, Fritz Weaver, Tony Award-winner Brian O’Byrne, and Sinéad Cusack.  The company has an annual audience of more than 40,000 and has been recognized with a special Drama Desk Award for “Excellence in Presenting Distinguished Irish Drama” in 1992, the 2005 Lucille Lortel Award for “Outstanding Body of Work,” the 2007 Jujamcyn Theatres Award, and the 2013 Outer Critics Circle Special Achievement Award, among other honors and nominations.

The Quare Land, which McManus subtitled A Cantankerous Comedy, is directed by Irish Rep’s co-founder (and Country Cavan native), Ciarán O’Reilly.  It’s a 90-minute, intermissionless two-hander in which 90-year-old farmer Hugh Pugh (a fantastic Peter Maloney) is having a bubble bath.  It’s the first wash he’s had in four years.  In fact, Hugh hasn’t left his run-down, cluttered farmhouse in County Cavan (not coincidentally writer McManus’s home territory) in longer than that and just lets his mail pile up where it lies in front of his door.  (It’s nothing but bills anyway, complains curmudgeonly old Hugh, whose only companion is his dog, Jessie—heard but unseen, though Hugh and Jessie apparently have frequent chats.)  His sudden focus on cleanliness has been initiated by the upcoming visit of his estranged brother, who’s 91—”We're both in the departure lounge,” quips Hugh—and an “alcho,” but an intruder arrives just as Hugh is getting settled in his bath, with Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash” playing from an old phonograph next to the tub.  Harried builder Rob McNulty (Rufus Collins), proud owner of a luxury hotel in Ballinamore in neighboring County Leitrim, had been trying to contact Hugh for weeks to buy a field the farmer owns on which to expand his hotel’s 9-hole golf course to 18—the better to attract more of the well-healed English city-dwellers who come to Leitrim to enjoy the rural Irish quiet—but Hugh is far more interested in spinning yarns than doing business.  

It’s hard to call the script’s lines dialogue since a lot of the time Hugh just goes off on his own journey despite Rob’s attempt to get him on point.  (Quare in the title is an Irish word for ‘strange’ or ‘odd.’  The characters in McManus’s play use the phrase quare land in a way that comes close to a sort of mystical territory but the word can also mean ‘great’ or ‘excellent.’)  One reviewer noted that though “there are certain stretches in the script,” it also makes “several key points”:  “First, appearances are deceiving; second, that while money and power may corrupt, what’s most corrosive to the soul is the casual cruelty that accompanies them.”

Endless negotiating ensues, as Hugh revels in his suds (he never gets out of the tub) and enjoys his rubber ducky (not to mention the rubber piggy and sheep, which take on a slightly sinister aspect a bit later).  It seems that Hugh doesn’t know he owns a field in Leitrim—until he and Rob the Builder sort through the decades of unopened mail Rob brought in with him.  Lo and Behold! there’s a 1932 letter (the play’s set in 2008) from a deceased former mate of Hugh’s.  The man had lifted Hugh’s wallet when they were out on a toot and bought passage to New York where he worked high steel—until, that is, he met his comeuppance when he fell off a girder hundreds of feet in the air.  (No one ever says, but McManus is making out that Hugh’s onetime friend had been building Rockefeller Center.)  Just before he met his end on the streets of New York below, he had deeded Hugh a field in Leitrim as amends for his bad behavior. 

Old Hugh has insisted several times that he isn’t a greedy man, explaining that’s why he lives as poorly as he does: it’s enough for him, so why would he want more?  The arrival of a now-valuable piece of property, however, along with an impatient buyer is too much for the old man and in his avarice and ambition—matched to a certain extent by Rob’s own—he intends to best the sharp young fellow.  Hugh even gets Rob to perform menial tasks for him, like fetching a kettle of hot water to warm up his bath and bringing him a towel (with which Rob longs to strangle Hugh).  The ending is a bit of a shock—not what I expected from a rollicking little farce—so I won’t reveal it.  (I strongly suspect that this kind of twist, however, will be a hallmark of John McManus’s dramaturgy—of which I now predict we’ll be hearing again soon.)

Because Diana arrived late at The Quare Land, we didn’t sit together and because there’s no intermission, I didn’t speak with her until after the show.  Her first words were: “This is the worst play I’ve ever seen.”  (I told her that I should begin writing down every time she says that because her list of “worst plays ever” would be a very long one!)  She said she agreed with the New York Times review (Charles Isherwood, who panned it on Friday, 2 October)—which she hadn’t actually read: I had told her what Isherwood had said on the following Monday.  I, however, found it droll with first-rate performances.

Now, neither Hugh nor Rob is very likable—though they both, particularly the old man, start out as just odd (if I were Irish, I might say ‘quare’) and single-minded.  Diana insisted that a “basic rule of playwriting” is that a lead character has to have some redeeming characteristic for viewers to sympathize with.  I don’t know where she got that “rule,” but I said I didn’t necessarily agree with her.  Especially in Post-modern theater, there are examples of main characters who are thoroughly unlikable, but the classics have their crop as well—consider Macbeth and his Lady: are they even remotely likable?  Richard III?  Doctor Faustus?  This is also true of movies (Alex DeLarge in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, any incarnation of Dracula—arguably the world’s most popular villain) and, especially, TV shows (Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey of The Shield).  (It seems to me that Joey Evans suffered objections for this very reason in 1940, and Pal Joey is now a classic.)  What’s more, I’m not sure Hugh Pugh is entirely unlikable—he’s an eccentric curmudgeon and he won’t shut up but he doesn’t become unpleasant until the end.  (Even then it was kind of funny—he kept skinning Rob.  The sharp businessman got outmaneuvered by the nonagenarian recluse.  Who would you root for?)

I recounted my conversation with Diana to my friend Kirk Woodward, who’s a playwright as well as a director, occasional actor, and acting teacher.  Kirk responded:

I’ve heard [Diana’s] “rule” before and it mystifies me, in part because it’s so completely undefinable.  Is Arturo Ui [a Hitler stand-in from Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui] unlikable?  He certainly ought to be.  Or is there charm in that?  Or in the way the actor plays the role?  Or to a Hitler-lover?  I can’t imagine ever sorting all that out.  I also suspect that sometimes “unlikable” is a way of saying “the character is too complex for me and I don’t want to work to figure it out.”

Charlie Corcoran’s set was gorgeous.  DR2 is a fairly tiny space with a small stage to go along with it, but when I entered, there was a closed-in (that is, completely enclosed by walls) shack which turned out to have been built on a revolve, even in this wee, little space.  It turned 180 degrees to reveal the extremely detailed set of the attic bathroom, tumble-down and squalid in a sort of grotty naturalism, with Hugh looking out at us from his bath.  The room’s all rigged out with a Rube Goldberg system of chains and pulleys so Hugh can retrieve anything he wants without exiting the tub.  (Wait till you see where he keeps his Guinness cold!  And Rob’s reaction when he discovers this after he drank a bottle earlier.)  As a set, it’s terrific.  As a bathroom, it’s disgusting!  

Michael Gottlieb’s lights keep everything grim and creepy—I sure wouldn’t want to hang out here—and Deirdre Brennan’s props keep adding to the outrageously surprising life of Hugh and this peculiar room.  (McManus explained his rationale for this setting: “My starting idea for The Quare Land was just to set a play in a bathroom because most plays are set in a kitchen and I had this image of an old man about to have a bath and then someone barging in on him.”)  Costume designer David Toser had only Rob McNulty to worry about, of course, since Hugh doesn’t wear any costume (a towel doesn’t count; it’s a prop), but the builder’s dark two-piece suit with the yellow construction vest over it makes just the right statement: well-off but not filthy rich, and still out in the field where the work happens; the sound, designed by Ryan Rummery and M. Florian Staab, is more than just “Splish Splash,” which sets a nice “playfulness” bar for the play, but also a recording by Enya—of whom Hugh’s a superfan—chickens clucking, and car sounds (complete with headlights shining through the window), all of which lend specificity to the extreme—yet quirky—naturalism of the production.  The play’s climax, which I won’t spell out, involves some elaborate and unexpected special effects by J&M Special Effects and Bodhan Bushell.   It gives new meaning to ‘going out with a bang.’

(One more word concerning my divergence of appraisal with Diana: I can usually get some enjoyment even from a mediocre play when the tech and acting are especially good.  That’s not entirely applicable here—I don’t think Quare Land’s a mediocre script—but apparently my partner wasn’t able to make this leap.  I’m reminded of my response to the Broadway musical An American in Paris—I recently reread my report because my friend Kirk Woodward will be explaining on ROT that he had a different experience at that show: I had multiple problems with the book, but I enjoyed the overall experience because the production was presented so well.  I also remember that a professor at college who was renowned for teaching the hardest course in the curriculum—which I never took, though my roommate did—used to award points on his exams for “elegance.”  Even a factually wrong answer was worth something if the argument was excellently presented.)

I said the performances were first rate, and I’ll stick with that even though one stands out significantly.  Part of that’s in the writing, of course, but that doesn’t detract from the magnificent work of the actor.  Let me get specific.  As Rob the Builder, as Hugh insists on calling him (he seems to have a hang-up for children’s toys, ditties, and TV shows), Rufus Collins creates the exact right impression: first impatient and frustrated that he hasn’t been able to get in touch with Hugh, then annoyance and greater frustration when the “aul fella” (as McManus calls him) won’t stop talking and let Rob make his pitch, then aggravation and growing anger that Hugh keeps raising the ante, and finally the explosion when Rob reaches the breaking point.  It doesn’t hurt that McManus’s script made me feel Rob’s increasing emotional distress, but Collins makes the steps along the continuum logical and comprehensible (not to say rational), and the actor took me right along with him as Rob’s frustration builds.  Because Collins makes perfectly clear that though Rob’s an acquisitive materialist but not a crook, his character is totally sympathetic and I have to admit, I identified with Rob and Collins’s acting supports that sense.

The flash in The Quare Land, however, comes from Peter Maloney’s Hugh Pugh, perhaps the stage’s quintessential curmudgeon.  Maloney’s Hugh isn’t any kind of lovable curmudgeon like the ones that show up on TV and in the movies: he’s not cantankerous but sweet like Walter Matthau in Kotch or even The Odd Couple, nor cranky and self-righteously angry like Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino; Hugh’s just a reclusive, grimy, Guinness-swilling, verbose, wily, manipulative, and (it turns out) greedy old fart.  But Maloney does all of it with a twinkle in his beady, droopy little eyes that makes him a delight to watch.  And what’s more, he does it without much movement; he gets to squirm around in his bath a bit, but otherwise, it’s all in his magically expressive face.  If Diana’s right that Hugh has no redeeming characteristics, but Kirk’s also right that appreciation may come from the way the actor plays the part, then Maloney is in large part responsible for my enjoyment of Irish Rep’s Quare Land.  (Of course, I don’t necessarily buy Diana’s premise—I’m just sayin’.  One Huffington Post reviewer remarked that Maloney “makes Hugh an eccentric charmer it’s hard not to like.”

The cord that lashes all these bits together—the acting, design, and tech—and makes Quare Land a prize-winning production is Ciarán O’Reilly’s direction.  To put it succinctly, he acquits himself excellently.  O’Reilly’s an actor himself, which may account for his good work with the cast, who worked in tandem as well as any two-actor ensemble I’ve ever witnessed.  He knows what they need and how to tell them; he knows how to help them and how to gee them up.  Believe me, having experienced this myself from both sides of the footlights, I can attest to how beneficial it is.  But more than that, O’Reilly obviously has a sense of what McManus is up to—perhaps because they both hail from County Cavan where the play’s set (and, I gather, McManus’s other work is as well); he has a handle on the vernacular and the concerns and the lives of the people who inhabit the playwright’s world.  At least it seems that way to this one outsider.  Then, since half the play is static, O’Reilly creates the impression of action, relying heavily on Rob’s impatience and anxiety but also generating a sense of tension and interplay in the cramped, low-ceilinged bathroom.  The director even makes the outrageous ending, which is logical but not predictable, seem like the only way out for Rob and Hugh. 

After the Times pan, I was curious to read what other reviewers said.  I didn’t look until after I wrote my own evaluation, but now that I have, let’s have a gander.  (Oddly, for the U.S. début of an emerging writer who’s attracted some attention at home—and let’s acknowledge that Ireland’s a pretty theater-savvy culture—there was a mediocre showing in the published press, especially the print media.)  Since I named the New York Times already, let’s start with Charles Isherwood’s review, which started right off with, “When a character in a play so shreds your nerves that you find yourself itching to throttle him within the first 15 minutes, you can be sure an exhilarating night at the theater is not on the menu.”  The Timesman followed immediately by predicting: “When said character is one of only two in the play, the sole item on the menu is likely to be unrelieved agony.”  “Despite two excellent performances,” Isherwood reported, “the play grinds on for 90 minutes, sustained by what is essentially a single joke.”  He declared unequivocally: “This, unfortunately, sums up my experience at John McManus’s comedy.”

In the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” column, the reviewer wrote that Quare Land “contains elements of vaudeville, absurdism, and Pinteresque uncertainty,” which I think is quite apt, but the writer demurred that it’s “a little uneven for all that.”  Nonetheless, the New Yorker journalist determined that “its reversals bring big laughs, as well as discomfiting menace.”  The Irish Echo’s Orla O’Sullivan complained, “Although many in the audience seemed to find [Hugh’s machinations] entertaining, I soon found it as wearing on me as it was on Rob (who displayed his irritability far sooner and stronger than seemed politic).”  O’Sullivan lamented, “The tension that might have built before the tables turned was largely lost.”  In addition to a mise-en-scène that, the IE review-writer reported, got the audience cheering “at the set-up alone,” however, O’Sullivan also had a few good words for Peter Maloney, who “was excellent,” and McManus’s script, which “had several funny aspects.”  “Watching a 90-year-old man take his first bath in several years might not sound like a barrel of laughs, but put Irish Rep regular Peter Maloney in that tub and you’re guaranteed a good time.”  That’s how Sandy MacDonald opened her review in Time Out New York.  “Some plot twists are overly tidy,” she added, “but no matter. It’s a treat to hang out with this rascally, irascible old-timer.” 

The cyber press’s coverage was much more extensive.  On CurtainUp, Charles Wright wrote, “The sight-gag of Pugh alone in his squalid attic lavatory . . . sets an appropriately ribald tone for this comedy . . . . This opening turns out to be the sole serene moment in a rollicking 80 minutes of inspired comedy.”  Wright paused to give a rather complete analysis of the play’s dramaturgy:

McManus works skillfully in the great tradition of Irish comedy, both verbal and physical.  The set-up for the plot is as simple and high-concept as Lady Gregory’s Spreading the News; but the playwright concocts a number of surprises that turn the latter part of the script wild and woolly as Synge’s Playboy of the Western World.  At moments, McManus’s humor rambles into the dark, Gen X territory of Martin McDonagh, giving the proceedings a quality that’s edgy and up-to-the-minute. 

The CU reviewer went on to lavish (deserved) praise on Maloney (even as Rufus Collins “gives a fine performance”), not just for his portrayal of Hugh but for his long career as a character actor. 

On TheaterMania, Pete Hempstead called Quare Land a “hilarious new play” and Maloney uses “folksy Irish humor” to portray Hugh.  Like CU’s Wright (and me, too), Hempstead was taken by “Charlie Corcoran’s brilliantly constructed set,” which the TM writer reported “immediately grabs our attention.”  Hempstead also praised Maloney in lofty terms, but he said one thing that I need to repeat because it captures my assessment so well: “Though he never leaves the tub, Maloney fills the stage with his presence like a blustering King Lear.”  The review-writer also declared, “Both actors make The Quare Land a must-see,” but he acknowledged, “Though Hugh and Rob’s verbal sparring keeps us laughing throughout most of this one-act, 80-minute play, by the end we’re not sure whether either of them is likable.”  Hempstead concluded that “The Quare Land has a plot we are eager to buy.” 

The on-line Huffington Post ran two reviews.  In the first one, Wilborn Hampton, who made a link with the recent visit to New York City of Pope Francis and his “admonition to Wall Street on the perils of unbridled capitalism,” described The Quare Land as “both funny and a vehicle for a tour de force for the brilliant Peter Maloney.”  He also calls the play “pretty much a shaggy dog homily about the nature of greed,”  told with “broad humor.”  Hampton summed up his opinion of the presentation by proclaiming, “The Quare Land is a delightful start to the Irish Rep's new season.”  Five days later, Fern Siegel called the play an “entertaining, nicely paced two-hander” whose “thematic undertow” is “[l]and, and all its myriad meanings.”  McManus’s play's “a cautionary tale that works, thanks to the deft performances,” said HP’s Stage Door reporter, adding, “Maloney is pitch perfect as man who can turn like quicksilver, while Collins is a steady blend of generosity and desperation.” 

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