Maeve’s House: shabby chic

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How it’s New York: Irish writer Maeve Brennan wrote for The New Yorker, and loved this town.
Eamon Morrisey ©Ron Kavanagh

Eamon Morrisey ©Ron Kavanagh

How it’s Irish: Maeve was originally from Dublin. The one-man show comes to New York from the Abbey Theatre and plays at Irish Arts Center.

On the one hand, Maeve Brennan’s life sounds kind of great. After growing up in Dublin, to a father who became the first Irish Legate to the United States, moving to Washington, D.C.,  with her family when she was a teenager in 1934, and then stayed on, becoming a writer first for Harper’s Bazaar and then for The New Yorker. She was petite, with masses of red hair, and was very stylish.

On the other hand, she succumbed to depression and mental illness and was institutionalized later in her life. When she died in 1993 at age 76, she did not know she had once been a famous writer.

Still the part that was wonderful, was wonderful. Irish Arts Center not only brought over an acclaimed one-man show, “Maeve’s House,” by and starring Eamon Morrissey, who is famous for his work in “Fair City,” and who also lived in what had been Maeve’s house in Dublin, they also presented a walking tour of Maeve’s New York, led by Lauen Ferebee. The tour was originally part of the 1st Irish Festival 2013. Both were meant to end this weekend but have been extended until Sunday, Nov. 10. Morrissey says:

A former colleague told me how he delighted in the approaching quick sound of her heels, her beautiful Dublin accent and her laughter.

Although there were troubled days ahead, there was no doubt the city loved her and what she loved about the city she wrote about.

Both have much to offer. I recommend doing both in one day, as I did (but don’t arrive late, as I did). If you can only do one, I have to say I think the walk is a little more fun. Places are very poetic, and in some ways more eloquent than people. Seeing the sights that inspired Maeve and hearing some of her work– lthough not performed as wonderfully as it is by Morrissey– is something unique. The walk meets in Washington Square, and goes through the West Village, the very West Village, West of Seventh Avenue, where the brick buildings are low, the boutiques expensive, and the trees shady. We walk past the apartment where Maeve once house-sat, in the same building with Edward Albee, who one summer took Maeve’s dog to Montauk, and who never forgot it.

Lauren Ferebee, on Maeve Brennan walk

Lauren Ferebee, on Maeve Brennan walk

Ferebee reads a beautiful piece about “Niobe” (not the dog’s real name) and how she is sure that though it looks ordinary, behind this one particular door are cliffs and a beach. Niobe knows it is closed and inaccessible to dogs who are not going there. But she never gives up hope.

After we cross Sixth Avenue, Ferebee reads a piece about how ugly Maeve found the avenue, unless it was covered in snow. And so on. We also pass a tiny 18th century farmhouse, tucked unassumingly next to a bigger building; pass one of the oldest lampposts in New York on Patchin Place, and finally, end up in a pub. It’s a lovely way to spend the afternoon while the weather is this glorious.

“Maeve’s House” is a one-man show, from Morrissey, who met Maeve when he was working on Broadway in Brian Friel’s “Philadelphia, Here I Come!” in 1966.  Morrissey sought her out because he had grown up in the same house at 48 Cherryfield Ave., the woman who used the pseudonym “The Long-Winded Lady” wrote about in her short story, “Twelfth Wedding Anniversary.” Morrissey weaves his own experiences with excerpts from Maeve’s writing. Although Maeve left Ireland in 1934, she continued to write about it and set stories there, even in the house itself.

Morrissey sensitively weaves the writing through his own, and there is no doubt that in him the author had found an empathetic reader, a fellow expatriate who appreciated all of the author’s sharp insights:

Yesterday afternoon, as I walked along 42nd Street directly across from Bryant Park, I saw a three-cornered shadow on the pavement in the angle where two walls meet. I didn’t step on the shadow, but I stood a minute in the thin winter sunlight and looked at it. I recognized it at once. It was exactly the same shadow that used to fall on the cement part of our garden in Dublin, more than 55 years ago.

Ferebee reads that very same passage, and there’s no question that Morrisey, who is a beloved actor from his role on “Fair City,” among others, brings it to life. But other passages that he reads, from short stories set in the house at Cherryfield, are just not so engrossing. We want to hear about Maeve, not her characters. It doesn’t really work.

Dramatizing an artist is not easy. John Logan’s play “Red,” about the painter Mark Rothko, so lionized by most critics, was, to me, as dull as paint drying (bad joke intended). Watching people paint on a canvas conveys nothing to me about genius. Writers are even harder to portray, because so much of their process is internal. And there’s a difficulty, too: you have to share some of the art that makes the person worthy, but share too much, and you risk overshadowing the originality of the piece that’s being portrayed. Cathy Tempelsman comes close to solving this problem with her recent play “A Most Dangerous Woman,” about George Eliot, with scenes that show the moody, difficult side of the writer, played brilliantly by Aedin Moloney.  Read our review here. But Tempelsman too forgets to include the audience in some of the excerpts and rarely do we know what book characters are enacting in front of us.

Morrissey reads some of Maeve’s’s stories that were set in the house at Cherryfield, stories about lonely people in troubled marriages, and shows how the

place continues to haunt the Irish woman living in a busy city. But this really doesn’t shed as much light as he thinks it does. Perhaps because he’s an actor, not a writer, Morrissey does not seem to realize that writers often pick settings they know well from youth without it being a sign of a yearning heart. It may be — or it may not be.

Similarly, Morrissey makes much of some words Brennan tells him about an anthology of “Best Russian Stories” she buys for him after their lunch at the Russian Tea Room. Young Morrisey was amazed that she asked him who his favorite short story writer was — again, this is so very common, famous writers ask young readers about who they like all the time. When he says Chekhov, her “There are other Russian writers, you know,” is completely natural, and expected.

The lunch, by the way, is nicely portrayed. Morrissey’s at his best when he’s describing the real, not the possible, as here:

She was looking very well, her red hair piled into her favoured beehive style, dark glasses, plenty of make-up, a little too much perhaps?

***

She did ask questions about Cherryfield Avenue.

Did the kitchen door still swell up in the wet? — It did.

Were the bannisters as creaky as ever? — They were.

After Maeve bought him the anthology (from the address, sounds like they were at the late, lamented Coloseum Books), she walks away, with the parting words,

“It’s all in there, you know,”

Eamon Morrisey, ©Ron Kavanagh

Eamon Morrisey, ©Ron Kavanagh

and those words haunt the young actor. For years, he tries to determine which story had it all in there.  Morrissey does not realize that this is a stock phrase teachers and mentors say about the work they love– they say it about Shakespeare, about Euripides, Dickens, The Bible. Every English major knows this.  G-d, I’ve probably said it to some student of mine, about Tom Stoppard or Oscar Wilde.  Morrissey thinks it is a mystery to be solved. Which was the special story? he wonders.  He ponders this for years. Eventually he realizes: It’s the introduction!

Except, you know, it’s probably not. Almost certainly, Brennan meant, “In this collection of stories, you’ll find love, betrayal, trust, faith, redemption, insight, poetry.” That’s why she bought him a collection she loved, not one story. That director Gerard Stembridge leads us to Morrisey’s misguided revelation as if it has a punch is natural, perhaps, but does not help. The introduction was most certainly useful to Morrisey, since, as he points out, it extols the virtues Maeve had herself: “simplicity, naturalness, veracity… warm breath of a great human sympathy.” But no writer would ever give someone a collection of stories (or plays, etc) and mean “pay attention to the person who wrote the introduction” anymore than an actor would recommend a movie and mean “pay attention to the camera work.”

I’m not saying that “Maeve’s House” doesn’t work at all, just that it’s  slight, and a little frayed. Yet, like the shabby chic style, it has  charm, simplicity and a sincere appeal. Morrissey’s earnestness and sincere admiration make up for much of what he lacks in literary, and biographical, insight.

Taking the walk and seeing the play do leave one fascinated by the difficult, spendthrift, insightful, playful and articulate Irish writer. We can only hope Emma Donoghue’s piece “The Talk of the Town,” also about Maeve Brennan, will be coming soon too.

In the meantime, there’s always the library.

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Copyright 2013 New York Irish Arts