The history books are a little vague, but it seems likely that human beings invented drink and drama at the same time. How else to explain the flowering of plot and character from late nights spent fermenting in Chaucer’s Canterbury inn, or Boccaccio’s Neapolitan villa? How else to explain why we can’t help ourselves from eavesdropping on bar stories, whether they’re told by the rakish hunk in a power suit or by the degenerate oaf with a hygiene problem?
Sean O’Brien knows that, sometimes, all you need to get an audience listening is a pantomimed beer in your hand and a look of despair on your face. It taps a vein communal in all of us. The real challenge, then, is how to build warmth and camaraderie in a theater – a space defined by its polarization and rules of silence.
O’Brien doesn’t waste any time. As the Irish bar songs and sing-alongs fade from the pre-show CD, he’s already ad-libbing with the front row as bartender Joe, making small talk with confused button-holders and checking ID, welcoming us warmly to McSwiggin’s Pub.
It’s fascinating how quickly this electrifies the space, greasing the wheels for a little audience involvement. Those fearing a descent into game-show theater will be quickly relieved, however, as O’Brien asks an audience member what’s on their mind (on Sunday night, it was the economy) and spins an original train of thought seamlessly into the scripted portion of the show.
In turns he becomes Howard, the hard-nosed conspiracy theorist from Brooklyn, Roy, the lionhearted post-grad scratching out gofer work in the tunnels under the Hill, and Bob, the blustering lobbyist with a wink and a hidden agenda. Small but effective shifts in tone pull O’Brien down a row of wooden chairs, inhabiting one seat after another and sometimes sliding back and forth mid-conversation. A dialogic solo performance… those are hard to pull off, and O’Brien aces it.
Don’t let the pan-Irish moniker fool you – McSwiggin’s Pub is truly a show about Washington. Bob, the lobbyist, can’t legally buy Roy, the House staffer, a drink: “The only way we can have a drink together is if I also hand you two thousand dollars for a campaign,” he chuckles.
The audience laughed hard and nodded in recognition as Howard, Roy, and Bob discussed Obama, their run-ins with Peter Orszag, the news of Cheney’s interference with CIA intel (a story mere hours old at the time of the show), why everyone is afraid of moving Gitmo prisoners to U.S. soil (“They’re not ninjas, Joe,” grumbles Howard), and the 2000 Florida election (consensus: The Pepsi Challenge could have run it more effectively).
There’s something deliriously weird about watching a man carry on a conversation with himself, even when he’s playing many men at once. The presumption that an empty seat is listening to your stories hints at deeper notions of being drunk – what it means to trade the vision in your eyes for a vision in your mind.
After all, when you’ve had a few too many and your eyes start to cross, who’s to say you won’t start seeing double… even of yourself? So we keep getting drunk on drama, and the stories keep flowing.
Written, Produced, and Performed by Sean O’Brien
Reviewed by Hunter Styles