DOWN THE SHORE
Goodman Studio Theatre
Erin-Go-Bragh! Irish-American Theatre Company
Fresh from his stunning New York success--remounting Scott McPherson's Marvin's Room--David Petrarca has returned to direct a very different kind of play: Tom Donaghy's Down the Shore. Where McPherson deftly mixed comedy with barely repressed sadness to create a work that literally had its audience laughing and crying at once, Down the Shore is much colder and crueler, about people far more emotionally stunted than those who populate Marvin's Room--characters alienated from themselves and totally incapable of empathizing with others.
At the center of Donaghy's play are a neurotic woman who calls herself Luke and her kleptomaniacal brother MJ, who has just returned home after a decade or so of wandering aimlessly around the country. These two pass Donaghy's seemingly interminable 90-minute one-act hanging out in a churchyard, turning over the past (while MJ was gone Luke grew up and their father lost his mind) and jabbering about the present (Luke plans to run away with her boyfriend).
This may not sound particularly interesting. It wasn't. Donaghy never gives his audience a chance to get to know, much less like, his prickly, defensive characters. That kind of understanding is always a challenge in theater, but Donaghy makes it much harder than it has to be by inventing a bogus hybrid English for his play.
At times this ersatz language reminds one of the choppy, telegraphic style favored by cartoon imbeciles and want-ad writers: "Not his little girl no longer," for example, and "He's not back in five minutes, he'll be my decapitated boyfriend." At other times Donaghy's English seems a more witless, less colorful version of the heavy-metal slang spoken by Wayne and Garth on SNL's "Wayne's World": "Bogus bogosity." "Pygmified." "I'm not a tard."
Donaghy's style is explained in a fawning interview published in the show's playbill: Petrarca justifies the eccentric dialogue first by claiming that "the English language has become decimated" and then by holding Donaghy up as the great redeemer of the language: "Tom's writing was taking what had been basically destroyed and creating a theatrical language out of what was left over."
Unfortunately, Donaghy's new theatrical language is far from finished. True, he does manage a clever line or two of slangy English, my favorite being Luke's put-down: "This music makes my teeth hurt." However, I saw enough totally confused audience members, and just as many totally uninterested ones, during the show to convince me that Donaghy has not yet succeeded in forging a new theatrical language out of the ignorant grunts and ungrammatical mutterings of postliterate America.
Almost as annoying as Donaghy's language is the pretentious way he piles his work with religious references--hoping, I suppose, that these will eventually reach critical mass and begin radiating more meaning than he's actually formulated. Not only does the whole play take place in a churchyard, in the shadow of an armless statue of Saint Bernadette, but the two central characters (MJ stands for Mark John) are named after three of the four gospel-writing apostles. Luke, who needs the kind of healing only a holy person (or a psychiatrist) can dispense, prays to Saint Bernadette (who spoke to Mary and founded a shrine at Lourdes) and wants desperately to escape to Avalon (a reference to the island where King Arthur is said to have retreated to heal the wounds he received fighting Mordred). Eventually she looks for salvation to her Christlike brother and her father, Stan Man, who provides the play's deus ex machina. This work is stuffed with religious imagery, more than enough to please a symbolism-crazed English teacher, but it's not enough to make the play any more meaningful to the audience.
Petrarca's four-member cast does tolerably well with Donaghy's knotty script. Hynden Walch as Luke comes the closest to creating a fully realized living person out of her collection of lines and facial expressions, and no one fails to give less than his all to a play that deserves far less. Still, I'd be very surprised if, two years from now, Petrarca took this humorless, lifeless tragicomedy to New York.
In Hugh Leonard's Da the Erin-Go-Bragh! Irish-American Theatre Company has found a finely written, sweetly sentimental play about a successful writer who returns home for his father's funeral and confronts his past. Unfortunately, of the eight actors who take up space on this stage, only two seem capable of wringing anything out of Leonard's script.
As the Da, John McDonnell captures well the charm and grace of the writer's bighearted but foolish and incredibly gauche father. With his beaming smile, sparkling wink, and jiglike walk, McDonnell seems every inch the big lovable Irish peasant. Christine Benk has a much smaller role as the likable slattern the Yellow Peril, yet her five minutes onstage are worth an hour from almost anyone else here.
Robert John Keating's take on the returning writer Charlie is so wooden and emotionless that it can't even maintain our interest, much less win our sympathy. He hardly seems the sort of man who's so attached to his past (and ashamed of himself for being so) that he's literally haunted by ghosts. For all his complaints about the smothering life in Ireland, Keating's Charlie comes across as the type who'd be a stick-in-the-mud wherever he lived.
Of course, when a whole cast seems as lost and directionless as this one, it hardly seems fair to heap the blame on individual actors. As director, James Severns should have seen that the production was going awry, that his cast's community-theater level of acting--full of misspoken lines, hesitantly executed movements, and unconvincing characterizations--was draining Leonard's script of all its charm and sentiment, leaving a two-act play as dry as dust and half as inspired. According to the program, Severns has directed "over one hundred plays, musicals, operas, and television dramas." After seeing what a mess has been made of Da, one wonders how many he directed well.