Category: Archive

Theater Review A potent, but civilized, evening

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILIZATION. A benefit for the Irish Repertory Theatre. At the Broadhurst Theatre, West 44th Street, NYC. Monday, June 7.

Starting off with an idea that resembled a potential mine field, namely basing an evening on the central theorem of author Thomas Cahill’s tongue-in-cheek bestseller, "How the Irish Saved Civilization," the Irish Repertory Theatre, on the occasion of its 10th annual benefit, cobbled together a 3-hour performance of remarkable grace, elegance, and, at times, surprising emotional resonance.

The notion’s inherent potential for self-congratulation, a quality that, for some viewers, marred the group’s long-running success, "The Irish . . . and How They Got That Way," was nowhere to be seen.

What was present on the stage of the Broadhurst Theatre on Monday evening, June 7, was a wide-ranging, well-chosen collection of Irish fragments including samplings of the work of William Butler Yeats and Oscar Wilde, both of whom have been the subjects of past full-evening Rep benefits, and on to Sean O’Casey, whose daughter Shivaun was in attendance, and James Joyce, whose story "The Dead," from his collection "Dubliners" was represented by a beautifully conceived and performed extract.

The evening’s primary host was Angela Lansbury, who recited a comic poem, "Ach, I Dunno," which has been a favorite of the star’s mother, Belfast actress Moyna McGill.

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As hostess, Lansbury, following such luminaries in past benefits as Katharine Hepburn, both Redgraves, Vanessa and Lynne, Barbara Walters, Rosie O’Donnell, and the team of Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson, was a definite standout, not only because of the class and adroitness for which she has been celebrated for decades, but as a result of the eagerness and high spirits with which she generously made herself a participant throughout the entire evening.

Joining the actress for a few moments at the top of the evening was actor Kevin Spacey, star of the hit revival of Eugene O’Neill’s "The Iceman Cometh," playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, on West 47th Street, just three blocks north of the Broadhurst.

Since both the O’Neill classic and the Irish Rep benefit began at 7 p.m., Spacey was taking advantage of his character’s delayed entrance in order to spend a few minutes with the Irish celebration. In his well-delivered contribution, he mentioned O’Neill and George Bernard Shaw, quoting the latter’s contention that the Irish skies and the Irish air were beyond compare, and that "the Irish climate will make the stiffest and slowest mind flexible for life."

Commenting that he suspected that his absence from the Atkinson might be making the cast of "The Iceman Cometh" nervous, he left the Broadhurst stage and began his journey to Harry Hope’s saloon.

The evening’s remarkably varied bill of fare included a slightly ribald scene from Geraldine Aron’s "Same Old Moon," a comedy produced by the Irish Rep as a season opener a couple of years ago. In the extract, a starchy mother superior, done to a turn by Terry Donnelly, tries to explain the facts of life to a young student, played with convincing naiveté by Schuyler Grant, by a sexual demonstration involving a doughnut and a biscuit.

On a higher rung of the comedy ladder was a delicious rendering of the celebrated "inquisition scene" from Wilde’s "The Importance of Being Earnest," with actresses Lansbury and Grant as, respectively,. the imperious Lady Bracknell and her frustrated daughter, Gwendolyn, and Tate Donovan as Jack Worthing, the object of all that pre-marital questioning.

Among the highlights of the evening, beyond doubt, was Frank McCourt’s reading, the first he’s done in a public situation, of a few pages from "’Tis," his sequel to the celebrated "Angela’s Ashes." The new book which takes its title from the final word of the earlier volume, will be published, according to the author, in the early fall.

Equally dazzling, albeit on a lighter level, was a turn by the Rep’s redoubtable musical director, Rusty Magee, who did a flawless impression of singer Cat Stevens’s song about the mysteries of fatherhood, and then did the same with a song by the late Harry Chapin, finally topping it all with a song of his own, and even a bit of a shuffle.

Other musical highlights included a performance by the New York-based Irish band The Prodigals, whose lead singer, Greg Greene, played a role in a recent production of Brian Friel’s "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" alongside Rep regular Pauline Flanagan.

Padraic Moyles, who, at age 12, had played the young Sean O’Casey in the Rep’s production of "Grandchild of Kings" in the 1992-93 season, with actress Flanagan playing his mother, turned up at the Broadhurst, this time as one of a group of "Riverdance"-inspired step dancers, with Eileen Ivers’s Band supplying the music and providing a few solos along the way.

Terik Winston, a member of the Ivers Band, thrilled the crowd with his tap-dancing, and, even, as the 3-hour evening, which moved so well that it seemed about half that long, drew to a close, some improvised Irish dancing.

Strong musical contributions were made by the unfailing Marian Tomas Griffin and Ciaran Sheehan, as well as fiddler Bob Green.

A surprise guest was standup comic Colin Quinn, a regular on "Saturday Night Live," famous for his tales of growing up Irish in Brooklyn.

The first act closed out with a slightly awkward monologue delivered by actress Swoosie Kurtz on the subject of her supposed "daily routine," followed by a fragment of sleight-of-hand by clown/magician Steven Ringold of the Big Apple Circus.

What was probably the most memorable single segment of the entire endeavor came late in the second half of the evening when six Rep standbys came downstage for that stunning portion of Joyce’s "The Dead," with actress Donnelly at her best as Gretta Conroy, and Paul McGrane as her husband, Gabriel. Actress Flanagan, Ciaran O’Reilly, and Brian F. O’Byrne served as narrators, while tenor Sheehan, accompanied by musicians Magee and Green, performed "The Lass of Aughrim," a song associated with the story.

The evening had had its share of bright moments, including the Rep’s O’Reilly’s reading of Patrick Kavanagh’s "On Raglan Road," and a reading by Brian F. O’Byrne and Marian Griffin of some updated "legends" culled from Thomas Cahill’s book, and the author’s own unique rendition of "The Irish Were Egyptians Long Ago," purported to be an authentic song from turn-of-the-century music halls.

The evening ended with the song "Wild Mountain Thyme," sung by the entire company. Coming after so much that had been so very good, the song packed a surprising emotional punch, much in the way that the Dylan number "Forever Young" did in the last scene of Martin Scorcese’s film, "The Last Waltz."

This exceptionally potent evening, it is to be hoped, won’t be anything like a last waltz, or even a final benefit, for the Irish Repertory Theatre and the group’s artistic director, Charlotte Moore, who has really developed a knack for putting these events together with a genuine flair and a real sense of the occasion. This one was one of the very best, start to finish.

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