By Joseph Hurley
BOSS GRADY’S BOYS, by Sebastian Barry. Directed by Ina Marlowe. Featuring William H. Andrews, Thomas Toner, Margo Skinner and Kay Michaels. Produced by the Organic Theater Company. At the 78th Street Theatre Lab, 236 West 78th St., NYC. Through April 14.
Sebastian Barry, author of "The Steward of Christendom" and "Our Lady of Sligo," among other works, set an earlier play of his, "Boss Grady’s Boys," on "a 40-acre hill-farm on the Cork-Kerry border."
As a Dubliner, Barry knows that rural Ireland is full of small holdings occupied by ancient siblings who have never married and who are living out their lives in desperation and confusion, trying to maintain the meager inheritance left to them by family members long departed.
Although the title might suggest Chicago in the corrupt 1920s, "Boss Grady’s Boys" is about precisely such a situation in the Irish countryside, with a pair of elderly brothers, Mick and Josey, sometimes clear-minded and sometimes delusionary, wandering through their days together in alternating hostility and affection, sleeping in the same bed at night, and sharing the same unreliable fund of memories.
A beloved sheepdog may or may not be dead, and so may be a couple of local widows who come, or once did, to play cards with the brothers.
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"Boss Grady’s Boys," first produced by the Abbey Theatre in 1987, is apparently the fourth of Barry’s plays to be seen in New York. "The Steward of Christendom" brought the late, great Donal McCann to the Brooklyn Academy of Music four seasons ago, and "Our Lady of Sligo" introduced Sinead Cusack to the Irish Repertory Theatre only last year.
Three seasons back, the Deadalus Theatre Company produced Barry’s bizarrely appealing little "Western," "White Woman Street," for a very brief run at the CSV Cultural Center on Suffolk Street on the Lower East Side.
Recently, Barry collaborated with director Martha Clarke and composer Richard Peaslee on a stage adaptation of Samuel Goldwyn’s 1952 Danny Kaye starrer, "Hans Christian Andersen," with its fine Frank Loesser score, but the venture appears to have been abandoned or at least sidetracked following its San Francisco tryout.
Thus far, Broadway, for which the playwright is reputed to hanker, seems to have eluded him.
Barry’s writing suggests a poetic talent more than an inherently dramatic one, a point clearly underscored by the current staging of "Boss Grady’s Boys," running through Sunday as a production of the Organic Theater Company at the admirable 78th Street Theatre Lab.
The current staging, by Ina Marlowe, who directed the Chicago production of "The Steward of Christendom," contains no Irish or even Irish-American actors, a situation that, while perhaps not actively damaging the overall result, certainly hasn’t helped matters much, since the event suffers from a mildly bogus quality which may or may not be inherently part of the text, or may have been contributed by the non-Irish casting.
Barry doesn’t seem to mind, and while he didn’t cross the Atlantic on behalf of this particular "Boss Grady," he contributed a program note in which he cited a prize-winning Romanian production that "has been running in repertory for a couple of years," causing him to reflect that "foreignness in this case may be closeness."
Whatever the reasons, this staging of "Boss Grady’s Boys," ostensibly the work’s American premiere, comes up with mixed results.
Tom Toner’s quirky Josey is sporadically effective, but the actor seems not to have been able to designate the precise level of the character’s disorientation, while William H. Andrews’s work as the more stable Mick is inherently bland. This, and Toner’s vagueness, may perhaps be the fault of director Marlowe’s approach to the text.
On the other hand, the problems apparent in "Boss Grady’s Boys," briefly on view on West 78th Street, may harken back to the play itself, and, more significantly, to Sebastian Barry’s particular abilities as a stylist.
Both "The Steward of Christendom" and "Our Lady of Sligo" required exceptional actors to breathe viable stage life into beautifully written by essentially static manuscripts. Fortunately for everyone involved, both McCann and Cusack supplied the needed brilliance in abundance.
There’s good work in this production, particularly from Margo Skinner and Kay Michaels, briefly present as those card-playing widows, and from Alfred Cherry, Bob Sonderskov, Corliss Preston and Meghan Wolf as minor figures in Barry’s landscape.
It may prove in time that Sebastian Barry, the son of actress Joan O’Hara, is a gifted writer whose work doesn’t quite rise from the page and make a significant claim to an important position on the stage, Romania regardless.