Notwithstanding playwright Conor McPherson’s claim to have written a play about the effect of Ireland’s recent prosperity on the lives of its people, Dublin Carol is a story of how a drunken idjit (Matt Dougherty) ruined his life. Drunken idjits, of course, ruin their lives in all cultures, and under all economic circumstances, and aside from the iconography (the office of our idjit, whose name is John Plunkett, is festooned with religious pictures) there is nothing to tell us that this is Ireland during the Celtic Tiger years.
Tolstoy once wrote “all unhappy families are unhappy in their own unique way; all happy families are the same“. But the narrative for men who crawl into the bottle to the degree that Plunkett does is always the same: they lose their jobs, they lose their relationships, they lose their homes, they sit in bars all day, they get sick on themselves, they sleep in fields or in jail, they get better or they die.
Plunkett is one of the ones who got better – marginally – and we see him at play’s opening in the funeral home in which he works. It is the morning of Christmas Eve. He is having his second Jamison before breakfast and talking about the days when he used to drink. The person to whom he is speaking is Mark (Joe Baker), a dim young man who is doing odd jobs at the funeral home while he waits for his life to take off. For fully a third of the play, Plunkett jabbers on about his misspent life while Mark looks for all the world like somebody cornered at a holiday party by a garrulous and well-lubricated uncle.
The pace picks up when Plunkett’s daughter Mary (Annie Grier) appears. Her mission, seemingly hopeless, is to get Plunkett to visit his long-abandoned wife, who is on her deathbed. Plunkett resists with all of his limited abilities; to see his wife, of course, is to be reminded of all the dreadful and horrifying things he did to her, some of which Mary recounts. Indeed, it appears that Plunkett’s primary ambition is to forget his past, but you suspect that every day he gives himself something new to forget.
This dreary play ends with the possibility of redemption, but – except for a horrifyingly specific description of what it’s like to go on a four-day bender – without any discernable insight. I wish I could say that Scena Theatre’s production made up for the play’s deficiencies, but I cannot. Scena has obviously devoted a great deal of thought and care to the production’s mounting – I loved that the bathroom off Plunkett’s office had a toilet in it – but it cannot surmount the effects of its unfortunate decision to give Plunkett an almost incomprehensibly thick Irish accent.
Authenticity is a wonderful thing, and I have no doubt that Dougherty, an experienced actor (though new to Washington) who has done Irish plays before, is delivering the real deal. But the ability to be understood trumps authenticity, which is why, for example, Picasso at the Lapin Agile is not done in French when it is performed before American audiences. When an audience member cannot understand an actor, he begins to think about what he had to dinner, or what he will say to his partner about the show afterward, or about his 401K plan, and eventually his thinking becomes randomized, which is a prelude to sleep.
No one in the audience fell asleep on Opening Night, but I did see some folks sneak out after the first third of the play, which is a bad sign in what should be the play’s most sympathetic crowd. One of the problems may have been the absence of effective air conditioning in the H Street Playhouse, leaving the audience to the mercy of the stifling August night. Another may have been what appeared to be a working electric fireplace – another concession to authenticity, at the expense of comfort.
Whatever the reason, the deserters missed some good stuff. Grier, whose accent is inconsistent, is nonetheless luminous, and I bought her conflicted feelings about her father. Baker is excellent throughout, and the expression on his face toward the end of the play when he realizes that he has been taking romantic advice from the unhappiest man he knows is a theater classic. Dougherty, who slows down and becomes easier to understand as he goes through the play’s plot points, shows himself to be a gifted physical comedian.
Nonetheless, the bottom line is this: Plunkett is a bad alcoholic, which is to say that he is a man suffering from a disease. It makes no more sense to attribute his condition to the Irish economy than it would be to attribute schizophrenia, or organic brain damage, to the deficit. We hope he will recover, of course, but it is out of general good will and not due to anything specific to the character, for he is not an attractive person. And after that, we would like to get into some cool air.
Produced by Scena International Theatre
Directed by Robert McNamara
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Click here for Details, Directions and Tickets.