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Theater Review A dark comedy of family dysfunction

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

RED ROSES & PETROL, by Joseph O’Connor. Directed by Neal Jones. FeaturingAideen Kelly, Fianna Gallagher, Julie Hale and Dara Coleman. At the Irish Arts Center, 553 West 51st St. Through Dec. 10.

Frank McCourt has found a way to be "in" a play without actually having to turn up at the theater every night. In Joseph O’Connor’s ambitious and flawed family chronicle, "Red Roses & Petrol," now at the Irish Arts Center, the author of "Angela’s Ashes," playing a recently deceased Dublin pater familias, appears only on videotape, with snippets salted here and there throughout director Neal Jones’s earnest, generally well-paced, briskly acted production.

Enda Doyle, the character "played" by McCourt, is a librarian at University College Dublin. By dying fairly suddenly, he’s opted out of active participation in the affairs of one of the most grindingly dysfunctional Irish families in recent literature.

Were it not for Enda’s departure, the Doyle clan clearly wouldn’t have gathered at all, since, for the most part, they loathe each other.

Johnny, a morose school dropout who repeatedly failed his leaving certificate, lives in London and has a fondness for cocaine. Catherine is waitressing in New York, but she’s told her mother, Moya, and stay-at-home sister, Medbh, that she’s working in a law firm in the Empire State Building, with a "nice view of the Statue of Liberty."

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Arriving for her father’s funeral, Catherine’s hostility to the rather submissive Medbh is incontrollable to the point where she begins spitting like a cobra the moment she enters her family’s modest living room. The lithe Catherine has brought along her handsome, passive dim bulb of a lover, Tom Ivers, a Protestant from Salthill, Co. Galway, himself a transplant to Gotham in the middle-1980s.

The calm center of the family unit, to the extent that there is anything resembling tranquility in the household, is the reasonably loving relationship that exists between Medbh and her mother. Medbh has just dumped her unexciting, long-term boyfriend, and has taken to spending too much time sitting around the house in a state of edgy withdrawal.

Johnny, that verbally articulate, deeply self-loathing escapee to England, isn’t really expected by the family, since his hatred of his father is intense and deeply rooted. When he does show up, having just stepped out of the shower, he comes as something of a shock to the audience, since nobody had mentioned he was even in the building.

When a play contains a secret or surprise element, recently discovered, such as a spool of recording tape, a diary or a packet of old letters, it’s only reasonable to expect that whatever it is will prove to be a reservoir of revelatory information, although that rarely is the case.

Early in the first scene of "Red Roses & Petrol" three or four video cassettes are discovered among some books the calmly grieving Moya is planning to dispense with. Neither mother nor daughter seems much interested until someone casually pops one into the slot and it reveals nothing at all more than the rabbity eyes, white hair mild manner, and somewhat monochromatic voice of Frank McCourt’s Enda.

McCourt reads a few fragments of poetry, and, on a second tape, dressed in a jacket and tie, reminisces a bit, placidly and apparently happily. As no startling secrets are revealed, the effect, overall, is that among the family’s disposable good were a series of Frank McCourt tapes they didn’t have much interest in watching.

"Red Roses & Petrol" does contain a tiny secret, having to do with the identity of a young woman, present at the funeral, and who, it is feared by Catherine, Medbh and Johnny, might turn up at the house for a drink and a sandwich after the ceremony.

Out of this apprehension, Catherine managed to head off everyone her parents ever knew, with the unbelievable result that no one at all shows up for the repast Moya has prepared the previous night and which rests in trays stacked on the sideboard throughout the course of the play.

Director Jones appears to have cast his actors mainly for their looks, with the lovely Julie Hale, remembered from her performance as "Ginger Man" Sebastian Dangerfield’s unsatisfied British wife on the same stage only a few months ago, as Medbh, while the equally appealing Fiona Gallagher is a perhaps somewhat too hysterical Catherine. As for the men, lanky Irish Rep regular Dara Coleman does wonders with the risky, complicated, and perhaps poorly grounded Johnny, while David Costelloe, a Tyrone Power look-alike, demonstrates Tom’s uncomplicated numbness and essential decency.

The fulcrum of the play, inhabiting a living room whose bookshelves are bowed to the breaking point with the weight of a long marriage’s accumulation of books, is actress Aideen O’Kelly’s Moya, an all-accepting woman, severely out of touch with the troubling realities of her childrens’ lives.

"Red Roses & Petrol" is a dark comedy worth seeing, and Joseph O’Connor, Sinead’s brother, is as stunningly productive writer well worth getting to know.

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