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Theater Review A Boston family deals with death — and life

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

GOD WILLING. Written and directed by David McLaughlin. Starring Lance Greene, Morna Murphy Martell, Melissa Murphy, H. Clark Kee, Brian Sullivan, Danielle Savin. At Pantheon Theater, 303 West 42nd St.. Through June 25.

Playwright David McLaughlin, author of "God Willing," knows the ins and outs of life in an ordinary Irish-American family, and so does Lance Greene, who plays the lead in the modest but efficient production currently on view at the Pantheon Theater on West 42nd Street.

If the writer and his star know the territory, it’s only logical, since McLaughlin is the youngest of 11 children, and Greene is the "baby" in a brood of 10.

As a work for the theater, "God Willing" has the virtue of earnestness, along with the drawback of predictability, as it tells the somewhat schematic story of a Boston Irish family over the course of two days following the death of an unseen character the program refers to as "the patriarch Gerald Lawler."

The play’s first scene, unsurprisingly, finds the Lawler clan, composed of Delia, the widow, Joe, the son, and Maura, the daughter, plus the siblings’ "affectionate others," praying over the coffin containing the earthly remains of a husband and father who perished as the result of a fall from a ladder.

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Joe is the family rebel, eager to experience more of the world beyond Boston than he has previously known, and less than eager to solidify his relationship with Aileen, the loyal but depressingly "suitable" neighborhood girl who loves him and fits, if anything, all too comfortably into the familial diagram, designed, or so it seems, by the steel-willed, Irish-born Delia.

Stumbling onto the scene midway through the wake is Pat Lawler, brother of the deceased, fresh from an Aer Lingus flight, armed with presents, including a large box of "Crunchies," the candy treat much beloved by the Lawlers.

On the sidelines, there is Steve Curley, purportedly a grand-nephew of the notorious Bostonian "Boss" James Michael Curley, conceived by McLaughlin in such a way as to indicate a possibility that rampant political ambition, along with at least a modicum of ruthlessness, is a matter of genetic adaptation.

Steve, the budding urban pol, is loosely affianced to the alienated Maura, participant in a recent dalliance, struggling toward a decision as to whether to admit the "lapse" to her intended or to keep it to herself.

Many of McLaughlin’s authentic-feeling scenes are laid in the Lawler kitchen, where tea and sympathy flow, and where, even in her grief, the flame-haired Delia, iron-willed despite her bereavement, presides with a brand of understated authoritarianism all too frequently found in the catalogue of the theater’s Irish matriarchs.

The moments not spent in designer Walter Ulasinski’s tidy kitchen, apart from those involving that patriarchal casket, are mainly passed in the family’s TV room, or, in a few instances, in a neutral, non-specific area to which the characters created by playwright McLaughlin, who also directed, retreat in the interests of sufficient privacy to permit the sharing of secrets and the airing of the domestic dilemmas of which the Lawlers and those attached to them appear to have, if not an outright surplus, at the very least, their fair share.

The benignly dictatorial Delia, given to regurgitating timeworn anecdotes without seeming awareness of their over-familiarity, seems permanently and bizarrely fixated on a long-ago visit to a girlhood chum, in which she surprised her friend at a moment when she had no tea in the cupboard.

McLaughlin’s materials are ordinary in the extreme, but his intentions are clearly honorable. The result is a somewhat flat-footed dramatic experience that could have made use of a few plot-turns, textual surprises the author opted not to supply.

"God Willing," has been seen on two previous occasions in the Boston area, with two brief, well-attended runs at the Burren, a pub on Davis Square.

Joe Lawler, from the outset, has been played by Greene, a young Massachusetts actor with an appealingly understated, boyish manner. In the current production, playing through June 25 at 303 West 42nd Street, Greene, who acted as producer, is surrounded by cast entirely new to the play.

Delia, the bereaved wife and mother is played crisply and compellingly by Morna Murphy Martell, while Maura, the undecided daughter, is rendered with grace and intelligence by Melissa Murphy.

As Pat Lawler, the visiting brother-in-law from Ireland, H. Clark Kee lends the production a much-needed jolt of pure animal energy, while Brian Sullivan imbues the ambitious Steve Curley with a creditable overlay of self-interest and benign distractedness. Danielle Savin, as Joe’s neglected girlfriend, is suitably sympathetic in the relatively few scenes assigned to her.

"God Willing," rough as it is around the edges, and somewhat simplistic though it may be in terms of its dramaturgy, is nevertheless the work of an observant, intelligent writer from whom more complex work can reasonably be expected in the future.

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