The fine actor Matthew J. Keenan recontextualizes Dickens’ Christmas Carol in this play, and his company, Keegan Theatre, is producing it for the third consecutive year. Keenan, a native of Ireland who has no other playwriting credits, has written an honest piece of work, which takes no shortcuts in its effort to achieve an authentic emotional effect. It deserves an honest critical response.
In An Irish Carol, Scrooge is re-imagined as David (Kevin Adams), an exceptionally sour pub owner whose ill-attended establishment is open on a snowy Christmas Eve. He is curt and antagonistic to his patrons, Jim (David Jourdan) and the libidinous Frank (Timothy H. Lynch) and positively brutal to his bartender, the Polish immigrant Bartek (Josh Sticklin). When his brother Michael (Mike Kazemchak) comes in to invite him to share Christmas Eve with his family, David summarily turns him down. When Simon (Jon Townson), a former employee, returns with his fiancée Anna (Susan Marie Rhea) and a business proposition, David turns him down with a curse and a snarl.
There is, of course, an ancient grief behind David’s distemper, and it comes out in a confrontation with his former friend Richard (Mick Tinder). There is thereafter (I dasn’t get too specific) a reconciliation, a Ghost of Future Yet to Be moment, and a Tiny Tim moment, and ultimately David becomes the embodiment of Christmas Cheer, turning enemies into friends while dancing a jig.
It is a dangerous thing to attempt to redo the most produced story in human history, and my hat is off to Keenan for embracing such a project. Having said that, I am obliged to report that this play takes on water early, and never fully recovers. It is possible to imagine Scrooge as a banker, or a lawyer, or a surgeon, or (as in the Bill Murray vehicle) a television executive, but it is implausible that he would be a pub owner. Friendliness and good cheer is the barkeep’s stock in trade; people spend good money to drink in bars, when they could drink much more cheaply at home, because they enjoy the conviviality. But undertakers are more convivial than David, who haunts his own bar and acts as a damper on high spirits whenever he appears.
There are other problems. David rejects Simon’s business proposal out of hand, but because we never hear how much money is proposed, we can’t tell whether David is being pigheaded or only loyal. Much of the impact of Dickens’ original story came from the operation of unfettered capitalism upon the poor; when Scrooge asks “are there no workhouses?” in response to a plea for charity we understand that his unwillingness to be personally generous has fatal consequences. In modern Ireland, on the other hand, the State is committed to the protection of the poor, and when David discovers the Tiny Tim in his midst he hears no call to significant personal commitment or charity.
I regret to report that the final conversion moment seems to me unearned. David, so dour at the outset that he seemed to be clinically depressed, is simply not a candidate for jig dancing, and certainly not after the subtle events Keenan limns out in this play. Admittedly, I find even Scrooge’s conversion hard to buy, but at least he had the intervention of the supernatural. David, having gone so deeply into his box, needs at least a ghost or two to get him out.
An Irish Carol
Closes December 31, 2013
1742 Church Street, NW
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $30 – $35
Thursdays thru Sundays
Finally, Keenan burdens his narrative with a great deal of “Hi! How are the kids?” type dialogue – the sort of small talk which characterizes our everyday conversation but almost never finds its way into good plays. I realize that this type of conversation is common in our everyday life but as the great writing teacher Gary Prevost noted, writing isn’t life – it’s life’s greatest hits. The fine cast does what it can with these lines, but the only actor I ever saw who could handle dialogue like this was Karl Miller, and he in very small doses.
Notwithstanding the limitations of the script, there is some good stuff going on here. While I think Keenan has painted David with colors too dark to serve his own purpose, Adams does justice to the text as written, and is magnificent in a silent scene in which he reads a letter. Lynch is superb as the veteran barfly Frank; in particular, he has a drunk scene which he must calibrate well enough to deliver a crucial message to David. He does the job. Sticklin consistently does good work, and he and Rhea (who is convincing throughout) are particularly good in a scene together toward the end. Keenan – who has designed his own set, to the play’s advantage – leavens the play with a mordant wit, and his evocation of Irish slang is spot-on.
Keenan deserves our respect for taking on a mountain of a task, and Keegan Theatre Company performs his script with affection and brio. But candor requires me to report that Keenan will have to do some more work before he is as adept a playwright as he is an actor.
An Irish Carol by Matthew Keenan . Directed by Mark A. Rhea . Featuring Kevin Adams, David Jourdan, Josh Sticklin, Timothy J. Lynch, Mike Kozemchak, Jon Townson, Susan Marie Rhead and Mick Tinder . Scenic design: Matthew Keenan . Lighting design: Dan Martin . Costume design: Kelly peacock . Sound design: Jake null . Set dressing and properties: Carol Baker . Stage manager: Alexis J. Rose . Produced by Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.