At first glance, Irish participation in the current Ninth Annual New York International Fringe festival seemed a little spotty. There was nothing, or so it seemed, to equal Tim Ryan’s sterling “All the Help You Need: Adventures of a Hollywood Handyman,” which won the top Solo Performance award last year.
Nor did it seem that this year’s running of the event, which began on Aug. 12 and winds up this coming Sunday, would produce as solid a play as “The Savior of Fenway,” a strong drama about some American Irish from South Boston hanging out in a battered bar as a particularly significant game was being played in the stadium that gave the work its title.
“The Savior of Fenway,” part of the Seventh Fringe Festival, won a top prize for drama and went on for an extended run in a small theater in — where else? — Boston.
In addition, the Los Angeles-based Ryan last month brought his excellent one-actor play back to New York for a few well-attended Midtown performances.
As this year’s Fringe got underway, it became clear that there were, after all, significant Irish entries, few in number, perhaps, but strong in content and authentic in feeling and frankness.
Three attractions merit genuine attention, one well-crafted and enormously enjoyable play, Martin Casella’s “The Irish Curse,” and a pair of solo shows performed by the young actresses who wrote them and lived them, Eileen Kelly’s “My Pony’s in the Garage,” and Eileen Fogarty’s “It’s Phuc Tap!”
Casella’s strikingly original, five-character comedy-drama, well-directed by Matt Lenz, has a running time of an intermission-less hundred minutes or so and would seem to have enormous commercial potential and to be a prime candidate for an extension or even a transfer.
The play’s all-male quintet are part of a support group meeting in a room in the basement of St Sebastian’s Church in Brooklyn, with Father Kevin, the stage-struck parish priest, both hosting and, for the first time, participating actively while the ladies of the congregation, planning a rummage sale, cool their heels just outside the meeting hall until the space becomes available to them.
So described, “The Irish Curse” might, on the surface, easily be mistaken for a play about alcoholism, which couldn’t possibly be farther from the truth.
Casella’s subject, to put it discreetly, is a form of sexual dysfunction which, he argues, is rampant among the Irish. Although one of the characters, an undercover cop named Stephen Fitzgerald, is actively homosexual, “The Irish Curse” is not at all a “gay play,” a genre represented by several Fringe attractions this year.
Father Kevin’s support group meets at St. Sebastian’s every Wednesday evening, and three of the members, including the cop, are more or less regulars.
In addition to Stephen, there are Rick Baldwin, a student specializing in sports medicine, and Joseph Flaherty, an inhibited, well-bred lawyer originally from the American Southland.
New to the meetings is Kieran Riley, a shy young Cork native transplanted to the Bronx some four years before the play’s action in order to work in the roofing concern his mother had inherited.
Casella’s materials, obviously, are virtually begging for vulgar, even obscene treatment, and, in other hands, would get it in spades. Not here, however, since the prolific playwright’s goals are serious, honorable and frequently very moving, although the basic thrust of “The Irish Curse” is decidedly comedic. If Casella ever appears to be about to stumble, it’s in one or two moments when the play seems about to become a bit of a self-help lecture, which it never really does.
Lenz’s cast is impeccable and beautifully balanced, with Brian Leahy as Rick, Broadway veteran Eddie Korbich as Joseph, the lawyer who doesn’t want to be called “Joe” or “Joey” the powerful Howard Kaye as Stephen, the cop, William McCauley as the priest, and Roderick Hill as the Corkonian roofer.
Early reports on “The Irish Curse” were sufficiently positive that the show was assigned an additional, unscheduled performance which took place last night.
As for the two solo shows, one, “My Pony’s in the Garage,” was the work of a young Irish-American woman, Eileen Kelly, who grew up as one of six children in a borderline dysfunctional working-class family in New Jersey.
The T-shirt she wears, bearing the legend: “New Jersey: Only the Strong Survive,” pretty much tells the tale. Kelly, a tall, graceful, modellish mother of young twins, views her family and her upbringing with generous wit and conspicuous insight.
The family, for a time at least, operated a candy store in the Garden State, a situation which involved periodic sojourns to the trade shows operated by manufacturers and distributors of chocolate and other “treats.”
Regular periods spent with only candy samples for solid sustenance, and Orange Julius where water might be preferable, left the growing girl yearning for broccoli.
Kelly’s family, despite being loving enough, in a disorderly sort of way, had its problems. Anything that broke tended to stay that way, or, only slightly better, to be repaired in a strictly temporary, sometimes vaguely dangerous manner.
The actress’ mother, a chain smoker prone to letting her cigarette ash build to lengths Kelly remembers as being three inches or longer powdery projectiles, which, finally falling, inflicted burns and stains on whatever they touched.
Kelly recalls a day when she was called before her school’s officials because a teacher, seeing obvious cigarette burns on her clothing, suspected she might be a victim of parental abuse.
“My mother smokes while she irons,” the girl explained.
The actress’ manner, start to finish, is intimate, candid and direct, with chapters mined from her life experience being separated by projected titles suggesting the subject matter of the next few minutes or so.
“My Pony’s in the Garage,” a title which is a kind of a riff on a familiar joke involving childhood’s unquenchable optimism, shifts gears in its final moments, as Kelly recalls and describes her mother’s decline and death as a victim, not of lung cancer, as might be expected, but of colon cancer.
Eileen Kelly’s memoir is as simple as it is direct, and as earnest as it is genuine. With work, it could conceivably grow into a show worthy of a life beyond the Fringe.
The memories of another Eileen, whose surname is Fogarty, are embraced by the title, “It’s Phuc Tap!” which is a Vietnamese expression which translates approximately as “It’s complicated!” Fogarty was one of five sons and daughters born to, she was raised to believe, as an Irish-American shipping official and a Vietnamese nurse. “My father wasn’t a soldier, and my mother wasn’t a whore,” Fogarty tells her audience early in the performance, setting the matter straight, in case anybody was wondering.
When Fogarty’s parents separated, her “father” took a job in Singapore, taking all five children with him, raising them it would seem, on his own. Her mother, a disorganized creature, to put it mildly, drifted to California.
The actual facts of Fogarty’s origins, and why she didn’t at all resemble her fair-skinned, red-haired brothers and sisters, proved to be other than those communicated to her as she was growing up.
The actress resorted to DNA testing in order to clarify her family situation. When she approached her father about the matter, his response was “Why bother?” It’s a sentiment with which the audience for this honest, but somewhat tedious and irrelevant show may agree.
“It’s Phuc Tap!” played its final Fringe performance on Sunday, but both “The Irish Curse” and “My Pony’s in the Garage” have shows still to do before the Fringe closes down for the year.
“The Irish Curse” gives two more Fringe performances, tonight at 9:00 and tomorrow, Thursday, at 4:30 at the Linhart Theater at 440 Lafayette St., across from the Public Theater.
The remaining shows for “My Pony’s in the Garage” are both at Collective: Unconscious, at 279 Church St. near White Street, two blocks south of Canal. Eileen Kelly’s second last show will take place tomorrow at 11:15, with her final performance scheduled for Friday evening at 7:15.