How It’s Irish: This is by Enda Walsh, who’s having something of a New York season, since he also did the book to Once, the musical, now running at New York Theatre Workshop. And the play takes place in a small town called “Inishfree,” and Yeats’ poem is in the program too. And the play comes via the Galway Arts Festival and Landmark Productions.
Deeply committed religious people onstage usually turn out to be whacko. I can’t think of even one example of a fictional character earnestly telling everyone to repent that doesn’t turn out a little crazy. Enda Walsh’s play misterman is no exception, but Walsh has a knack for making his crazies terrible and lovable too. It’s Walsh week in New York; his adaptation of the 2008 Academy Award winning film Once opens Tuesday night at New York Theatre Workshop.
Cillian Murphy plays Thomas Magill, and also all the unseen characters Thomas talks to and reacts to in the town of Inishfree. It’s a big job and he runs all over the cavernous set (Jamie Vartan designed) at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, being good-natured Thomas, a somewhat slutty café owner, an angel, a car mechanic. It takes a while to get one’s bearings as the play opens: Thomas turns reel to reel tape machines on and off, responds to them as if the people are talking to him. Is it a post-apocalyptic world? Is he in hiding? Is he Jesus? Even when you don’t have a clue what is going on, you can’t help being drawn in to Murphy’s physical exuberance and quick comic voice changes (not to mention those famously magnetic blue eyes). Murphy leaps about, gets completely soaked, does doggy voices, and breaks your heart.
The story as it unfolds, and it does reveal itself, has elements of tropes Walsh, who also directs, clearly loves. There’s 50s easy listening, in this case, Doris Day, used ironically and lovingly. There’s someone rehearsing and performing a traumatic event—the same trope Walsh uses in both The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom. Misterman is an early play, substantially rewritten for a world premiere at the Galway Arts Festival and Landmark Productions this past summer. While these elements are familiar, they’re conducted with so much exuberance and conviction that it all works. Nothing is quite real, but reality keeps seeping in. Thomas goes to visit his father’s grave, but never leaves the warehouse; when he gets there we see crosses made up of Fanta bottles.
Thomas is our only guide in his world, and he’s not reliable at all. He lives with his Mammy, picks up Jammy Dodgers for her, visits Daddy’s grave, cheerfully greets people in the town, writes down their sins in his little notebook. He presents himself as a simple, happy person who just wants to clean up his town and commune with the lord above, but some of the voices that we hear on the tape recorder don’t confirm that what he tells us is exactly what happened. That dichotomy fascinates. We’re inside his mind somehow—we hear his music and loud thunder claps (Gregory Clarke on sound design), and it’s not a safe place to be. Thomas meets an angel, named Edel, in the coffee shop. Accompanied by heavenly music (by Donnacha Dennehy), he describes her pale beauty, her wings. We see that this boy is desperately lonely: “Community is made by her just being there.” Along with Walsh’s poetry, he injects offbeat humor into Thomas’ mind, describing someone’s boredom “as she filed her bunions of an evening.” Like Krapp in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (which by the way opens with John Hurt at BAM this week as well, until Dec. 18 only) Thomas replays the past electronically. But the past won’t stay still. It’s not always what he wants to believe it is. Even his great faith can’t take him there.
Late in the play we’ll hear Edel’s voice (ready by Alice Sykes). She’s English, and a teenager, and hardly an angel. There are other voices too we hear in recording, and they are often different in tone from what we expect. Long before we get to the shocking climax of the play, we begin to see cracks in Thomas’ story. At first recruiting Simple Eamon Moran as a partner, he then overreacts to the presence of a girly calendar on the wall. He cheerfully drowns a whole litter of kittens, to prevent one from being “an only kitten” in a town full of dogs. He kicks a dog to death for biting his sandal. He has no remorse nor empathy. In short, he’s a psychopath. There’s one quick reference in the play to the abuse and beatings Thomas suffered through. He doesn’t dramatize those. They just are in the air.
misterman runs through Dec. 21 only at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 38 Water Street, 718-254-8779
And now for my Rude English Woman story. This could happen to you.
An Enlgish woman at St. Ann’s Warehouse pushes my coat, whose collar I’d placed on back of my seat, at me, because it’s ON HER PROPERTY, then she lectures me about holding a coat on my lap as one should. Accused me of being an arrogant New Yorker for wanting to lean my coat on the back of MY chair. When I pointed out that everyone else put their bags under their chairs and their coats on chairs she insisted they weren’t then threatened to put gum on my coat! She was about 60! I said I would call management and she said “will you! will you!”
Now think about this. SHE insists I should do things HER way in MY city, but she says *I’m* arrogant.
Word to Visitors to New York: We lean coats on the back of our chairs here. Deal withit.