How it’s New York: Performed in New York through September 7, 2014
How it’s Irish: Written by Irish playwright Laoisa Sexton and set in Dublin
Walking into a nearly blank performance space, I wasn’t sure what to expect from “The Last Days of Cleopatra”, the fiery new play from Dublin actress and now playwright Laoisa Sexton. But I knew I wasn’t to be disappointed, from the opening segment where the charismatic Jackey, played brilliantly by Cork native Michael Mellamphy, bursts onstage in full internal dance mode. He slides into an open monologue of the travails of his work life, and family situation. Jackey is soon joined by the characters of his sister Natalie (Laoisa Sexton herself) and father Harry (Kenneth Ryan), who all speak in vivid monologues even when in each other’s presence. Their disconnection is palpable from the start and the stark scenery by ATEAM, LLC and vivid lighting by Michael O’Connor add to the separation.
Funny, bitter and throbbing with the intensity of frustration, Laoisa has created a great piece here on the dysfunction and lack of communications in modern families.
Laoisa plays wonderfully with social media having become many people’s most frequent form of communication, and the toll it has taken on conversation and interaction. While there is tremendous turmoil going on within the family, as they are all dealing with the imminent demise of the unseen family matriarch, they all have internalized their pain, or chosen to focus on other things to take their mind off it. You practically want to scream at them to just talk to each other!
The poetry and prose of the play interweave wonderfully to amplify the disconnect within the family. They all have their own take on each others shortcomings, and an increased sense of their own importance. Yet they all harken back to the similar memories of childhood, often emphasized with creakily sung phrases from “Les Miserables”, the collective soundtrack of their youth.
Ryan as Harry evokes that cool swinger dude from the ’70s who has refused to cut off his ponytail and grow up, and is still grasping at the brass ring of his youth. He still wants to do right by his dying wife, and find a way to get the cash together to give her a decent burial. He’s not the breadwinner by a long stretch and has left his kids to pick up the slack in many cases.
Sexton in her role as the daughter Natalie gives us the rough and yet very romantic picture of a true survivor, who has risen against the surrounding adversity and still clings onto the romantic image of her parents in their early days. She’s resolute in doing what she can to help her mother, and desperate for the love that she knows she deserves and of which she can only seem to find fleeting glimpses.
Tim Ruddy’s direction is spot on, with in-your-face Dublin accents, giving the full affect of the current slang which peppers the dialogue and necessitates a glossary in the lobby for the New York Dublinese neophytes. There is a rollercoaster pace that doesn’t let up and sweeps the audience along on its emotional ride.
Like some of the current television offerings and films that show the less picturesque sides of the Emerald Isle, there is a grittiness and reality that hits home. This is true whether it’s Harry begging for pints on credit, Natalie dealing with the fact that her man who calls her “Cleopatra” has slept with her best friend, or Jackey being less than true to his weight loss goals and the romantic advances of his boss.
Although this was a limited Off Broadway run, I hope that the positive buzz surrounding this production will give it a future and put the imposing perspective and poetry of Laoisa’s work on display for a large audience. She is a truly promising new playwright and I look forward to the wackiness and sincerity of her future work.
Cast in order of appearance: Michael Mellamphy (Jackey), Laoisa Sexton (Natalie), Kenneth Ryan (Harry), Kevin Barron (Karl, Skanger & Maureen). August 20 – September 7, 2014 at Urban Stages, NYC