By Joseph Hurley
ARDAL O’HANLON and TOMMY TIERNAN — An Evening of Irish Comedy at Irish Arts Center, 553 West 51st St., NYC. Through Jan. 29.
Ireland isn’t a nation celebrated for its stand-up comedians. That said, the estimable Irish Arts Center has managed to import not merely one, but two, examplars of the genre, Ardal O’Hanlon and Tommy Tiernan, and is presenting them on a double bill for nine 8 p.m. performances only, the last scheduled for this Saturday, Jan. 29.
The run at the theater on West 51st Street is so strictly limited because both performers have prior commitments in television, the medium in which they both earned whatever degree of celebrity they currently enjoy, O’Hanlon for his work as Father Dougal in the successful series "Father Ted" and Tiernan as a result of his participation in a perhaps somewhat less familiar show, "Small Potatoes."
At the Irish Arts Center, O’Hanlon is, to some extent, being regarded as the biggest draw, with Tiernan seemingly positioned as his "opening act," coming on and performing his extremely easygoing material at the start of the evening.
As things work out, although both O’Hanlon and Tiernan are appealing comedians, both characterized by what might best be described as a sort of understatedness, even a form of shyness, it is the casual-seeming Tiernan who seemed most comfortable before the Irish Arts Center’s rather familial opening night audience, and whose material, reflecting family life and his small-town Irish experience pool, seemed to go over better.
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For his part, O’Hanlon appears to possess some of the less attractive qualities of a Las Vegas lounge act, relying, as he does, on some material of decidedly questionable taste, replete with sexual innuendo and the varieties of "toilet humor" more suitable in an English stage act designed for the undemanding British audiences who flock to resorts such as Blackpool in the summer season.
Tiernan, shambling into the stage lights dressed for the deep chill that had gripped the city, his head covered by a Russian-looking fur hat, complete with earflaps, explained his zippered gloves as something he’d "picked up in an S& M shop."
Tiernan, an ordinary-looking, normal-sized man in, once he removed his overcoat, a leather jacket and rumpled slacks, looked as though he might easily have stepped out of the audience and climbed up into the performing area on some deeply secret impulse on amateur night.
His deceptive aura of ordinariness and neutrality cloaks, until he gets going at normal speed, the fact that his material is almost totally well-observed, cleverly written, and confidently delivered, reflecting very little in the way of nervousness or insecurity.
More than anything else, perhaps, is the ring of truth that emanates from virtually everything Tiernan says. For example, when he describes the apparently troubled atmosphere in the house in which he grew up in the West of Ireland, with his silent father responding, if at all, with monosyllables, grunts and mumbles, to the seemingly endless carping of his dissatisfied mother, the elder Tiernans become virtually visible.
Tiernan is unpretentious in the extreme, and appears to be totally at home on the Arts Center’s modest, cozy stage.
The comic’s keen eye reflects undeniable insight into things Irish, describing his country’s football as "a cross between rugby and the IRA," and it comes as something of a surprise that among his points of reference, the Bible is rather frequently cited.
After Tiernan finishes his act, which occupied nearly an hour, but which seemed somewhat briefer, there is an interval in which the stage is turned over to Ardal O’Hanlon. Even before he makes his entrance, there is a marked difference between the two performers.
While the audience was, for the most part, out of the auditorium, a microphone had appeared, spotlit, in the center of the Arts Center’s stage. Where Tiernan has simply occupied the stage, chatting with his audience, more or less as though he and his hearers were already acquainted, O’Hanlon relied on the mike, sometimes contained in its tall stand, and at other moments held in his hand as he moved around the stage.
With his near-leading man looks, the auburn-haired O’Hanlon may remind you a bit of Jim Carrey, or even a fuller-faced Denis Leary.
On opening night, O’Hanlon, was easily and immediately recognized by his audience as the naive young curate and associate of "Father Ted," a series whose life was cut short after its third season by the sudden death of the actor Dermot Morgan, who had played the title role.
Throughout the roughly 45 minutes he spent on the Arts Center stage on the show’s first night, O’Hanlon seemed peculiarly uncomfortable, despite the obvious and unrelenting warmth with which the reasonably full house had welcomed him.
While Tiernan had openly asked for a show of hands to determine how much of his audience was genuinely Irish and how much of it was composed of Americans and other aliens, O’Hanlon took the house as given and never seemed quite able to get a solid purchase on the nature of the crowd he was confronting.
Like Tiernan, O’Hanlon is inherently personable and somewhat more experienced than Tiernan in terms of audiences. Again and again, however, O’Hanlon’s material seemed a bit off-target, sliding past the audience, with the comedian looking as though he wished he could somehow retrieve it unvoiced.
Some of his jokes hit their mark, including a moment in which O’Hanlon, who has written a novel, "The Talk of the Town," told his audience that his major writing career was accomplished using the pen name M’ve Binchy.
Even not precisely at the top of his form, O’Hanlon is, like the appealing Tiernan, a welcome addition to the city’s Irish-oriented theatrical season, and the Irish Arts Center, under its executive director, Pauline Turley, is to be congratulated for bringing both performers to the attention of New York audiences.