In 1998, when Marie Jones’s “A Night in November” debuted at the Irish Arts Center, the star was Belfast-born Dan Gordon, a dark, powerful, slightly threatening leading man who brought imposing impact to the complicated, subtle, vaguely discursive one-actor play.
Now the show is back where its American life began, in a fresh, new production starring another actor from Belfast, Marty Maguire, and directed by the American Tim Byron Jones.
If anyone needs to be reminded that no role ever belongs to a single actor, the 41-year-old Maguire’s sly, subtle, poignant take on the part should make the point strikingly and effectively.
The shortish, slightly pudgy actor — clear blue eyes shining out of a roundish head capped with a short, sandy buzzcut — brings an impressive and moving vulnerability to the story of Kenneth Norman McAllister, a Belfast civil servant who could be said to be a kind of Northern Ireland “Everyman.”
Jones, now probably best-known as the author of the riotously successful two-actor work, “Stones in His Pockets,” was celebrated as a versatile actress in her native Belfast long before she ever seriously turned her hand to writing, and her acutely-boned instincts and her experience as a performer inform everything she turns out as an author.
“A Night in November” lingers in memory as the tale of a modest, passive, easily-dominated Belfast “dole clerk,” a Protestant whose world is changed irrevocably by more or less accidental exposure to the casual daily life of Jerry, his Roman Catholic superior at the welfare office where he is employed.
Jones’s McAllister, trapped in a loveless marriage to the houseproud, obsessive-compulsive Debrah and more or less intruded upon by his wife’s coarse, bigoted father, Ernie, is an almost classic example of the repressed hero ripe for rebellion.
The play’s first half deals mainly with McAllister’s tardy “education” into the life of the “others,” the West Belfast Catholics of Falls Road, a people who were, before the play’s events, as foreign to him as might be the case if they inhabited a different planet.
First produced by Dubbeljoint Productions, of which Jones was a co-founder, at the West Belfast festival on Aug. 8, 1994, “A Night in November” has, unavoidably, since it pivots on actual facts and locations, taken on something of the tone of a period piece, albeit a throbbingly vital and affecting one.
Each of the play’s acts is pegged to a football match and is played out against the details of the crucial game against which its details move.
In November 1993, the Northern Ireland soccer team played the Republic of Ireland aggregation in a World Cup qualifying match held in Windsor Park Stadium, Belfast. Regardless of the outcome, Northern Ireland was not eligible to qualify, but if the Republic team won, or if the match ended in a draw, the team from the South could travel to the USA to participate in the 1994 World Cup.
Many Northern Ireland supporters, most of whom were Protestants, regarded the game as a grudge match, and came loaded for bear, ready to heap violence on any Catholics who had had the temerity to witness the event, particularly if they had journeyed North to Belfast in order to support the team from the Republic of Ireland.
And some Southerners had indeed made the trip, perhaps not fully aware of the anger the occasion held in store, at least potentially. The subtleties of the situation, perhaps understandably elusive to American audiences, are swiftly and efficiently presented by playwright Jones, as McAllister assesses the crowd surrounding him in the stadium stands.
The match around which the play’s second half evolves is the World Cup match which pitted the Republic of Ireland players against the team from Italy, an occasion which prompted a mass movement of Irish fans from the Republic to New York.
Both matches, unavoidably, have faded from memory a bit with the passage of time, as have the names of such star players as goalkeeper Packie Bonner, not to mention those of Jack Charlton and Billy Bingham, managers of, respectively, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland teams.
And some of the geographic details have changed, as well. The play mentions Eamon Doran’s beloved pub on Second Avenue. Doran has died since the play’s debut, and the place is closed and gone.
Perhaps due, at least in part, to the endlessly buoyant performance being given by the ebullient Marty Maguire, the second half of “A Night in November” now seems, more than it did in the earlier production, like a hymn to the passion the average Irishman apparently feels for New York City, whether or not he’s ever actually seen the place.
It isn’t giving very much away to say that when shy Kenneth McAllister learns that his boss, Jerry, is going to make the crossing to America with his wife, who isn’t even remotely interested in football, while he and his own shrewish wife are planning to spend their vacation, as usual, at a caravan site controlled by her family he takes the first real leap to freedom that he’s ever taken in his life. Act II makes the journey to the Big Apple with him.
Actor Maguire, valid and energized from the very first word he utters, really steps on the gas for the show’s latter half, bringing into play a childlike glee that indicates precisely how repressed McAllister’s life in West Belfast has been, and the sheer joy of which he’s inherently capable of experiencing and expressing, if only he’s given the opportunity.
Maguire’s boundless excitement in the second act, combined with the na