Stephen Rea unforgettable in play about Belfast
How it’s New York: The Public Theater is one of New York’s most important producing theaters of new work (“Hair,” “A Chorus Line,” “Hamilton.”)
How it’s Irish: The play is by an Irish author, from the Abbey Theatre, the national theatre of Ireland founded by William Butler Yeats and others in 1904, in a coproduction with London’s Royal Court Theatre– and it’s very much about Ireland too.
“Cyprus Avenue” by David Ireland
Coproduction of the Abbey Theatre and the Royal Court Theatre, at the Public Theater
425 Lafayette St., publictheater.org, 212-967-7555
Through July 29
Some parts of Belfast playwright/actor David Ireland’s new play “Cyprus Avenue” are chilling. Some parts of it are funny. A few are haunting.
The play showcases a shimmering voice, a remarkable performance from Stephen Rea. It explores the madness that a personality obsessed with divisive politics can bring about.
Hmm. Divisive politics. Why oh why does that ring a bell..
Specifically, the play, which focuses on Eric Miller, a Belfast unionist who says he’s British, not Irish, explores how a lifetime of hatred, prejudice and fear can erode the soul.
It’s not a one-man show but it often feels as though it is, as we go in and out of Miller’s thoughts and actions. He describes them to a black psychiatrist (Bridget, played by Ronke Adekoluejo) in what appears to be an institution.
One of the first things he does is to call her the N word and seem puzzled that she minds, so we know he’s not quite with it.
Rea (“The Crying Game;” “Kicking a Dead Horse;” “Ages of the Moon;” “Guinevere”) is astonishing as a new grandfather whose grandbaby’s (imagined) resemblance to Irish republic leader Gerry Adams causes him to literally go around the bend.
It’s easy to see why the play won the Irish Times Theatre Awards for Best New Play and Best Actor in 2016.
So much of the play is wonderful. Some moments are full of theatricality and poignancy: at one point (spoiler alert!) a dead woman sits up and sings part of a ballad. It’s a unionist ballad, of course. That moment perfectly and dramatically makes the point of the futility and the real cost of the ongoing hatreds.
There’s also a lot of humor, and Rea chews the scenery delightfully as he tries to convince his wife Bernie (convincingly
frazzled Andrea Irvine) that the baby is really Gerry Adams. Miller even draws a beard on the baby.
He tells his doctor everyone is a Fenian: the Pope, of course, Barack Obama…
There’s a lovely encounter with an actual Fenian (at least, a Catholic) in a London pub. Miller is won over by the man’s friendliness, and even finds himself singing songs. Fenians “have the best songs,” he says.
“Cyprus Avenue” is so nearly great.
But. The set-up itself is tired, and doesn’t go anywhere. It’s slightly better than having Miller come to the edge of the stage and tell us his story: but only slightly.
At one point Miller runs into a thug named Slim (Chris Corrigan) who speaks eloquently about books and movies. We’ve seen this before.
And there are loose ends. The daughter Julie (Amy Molloy): does she live with her parents? Is she married? These questions aren’t of HUGE importance, perhaps, but once Miller goes down the bizarre path of wondering whether his daughter has had an affair with Gerry Adams, they do need answers.
The title of the play refers to the street on which the Millers live. It’s a residential street in Belfast, and also the name of a song by Irish singer Van Morrison.
Rea, 71, is from Belfast himself. He’s fluent in Irish (I was once in a car with him and Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and they chatted away), and no doubt fluent with the politics that obsess Miller. American audiences, even Irish-American ones, probably won’t be: it does seem that most Irish-Americans you meet in the Tri-State area are from the South and West. A glossary would be helpful.
Director Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the Royal Court, founder of the National Theatre of Scotland, directs, and ably keeps up the pace and varied styles the show calls for. At one point Miller even sings.
Rea should sing more often.
There’s about a minute of silence and just vague background music at the top of the play– just long enough to make you wonder if the play is going to be an installation. Fortunately, it isn’t. Much of the descent into madness is entertaining, and all of it is quick.
But there’s a baby at the heart and that ups the fear.
There is violence– and a violence warning– in the play. Yes, the play is very dark. But what it isn’t, ultimately, is surprising. It feels a big grand guignol-ish, or ’80s slasher film, and fails to stick the landing as a result. To get us there we have to accept too much.
Ultimately, it’s worth it anyway. The meanderings of Miller’s mind fascinate and convince, even when the plot of the play does not.