By Joseph Hurley
PORTIA COUGHLAN, by Marina Carr. Directed by Margaret Whitton. Starring Pamela J. Gray and Pauline Flanagan. At the Actors Studio Free Theater at Raw Space, 529 West 42nd St., NYC. Performances Wednesdays through Sundays through May 3.
A first-rate production of a fascinating play by one of Ireland’s most gifted young dramatists, using some of New York’s most accomplished actors, an event available free-of-charge in an attractive, comfortable new performing space in midtown Manhattan? Impossible, you say?
Not at all. The Actors Studio Free Theater, making its home in the extremely appealing auditorium known as Raw Space and located at 529 West 42nd St., is not only one of the city’s best-kept secrets, but certainly the very best deal in terms of gratis theater this side of the New York Shakespeare Festival’s sometimes wobbly, sometimes wonderful summertime efforts in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater.
The group is currently offering the first New York production of Marina Carr’s “Portia Coughlan,” a 1996 work that debuted in the Abbey Theatre’s downstairs space, the Peacock, and then transferred to London’s Royal Court.
Carr, not yet 35, is much lauded in her own country, with numerous awards and subsidies, but is still relatively unknown in America. An earlier work, “The Mai,” was named Best New Play at the 1994 Dublin Theater Festival, and was produced at Princeton’s McCarter Theater, and, later on, at the Milwaukee Rep.
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As the audience enters the Raw Space auditorium, Beowulf Boritt’s ingenious, curtainless setting offers a clue to what’s to come, and to the young dramatist’s apparent region of concern, at least in terms of Irish geography, as a copy of the Offaly Independent lies, face up, on the floor, covering a bit of casually discarded clothing.
In “Portia Coughlan,” as in “The Mai,” a complex, troubled woman stands at ground zero of the story’s dramatic movement. As before, the titular heroine is a participant in an egregiously dysfunctional marriage, and is surrounded by family members who, whether sympathetic or not, aren’t in the end of very much use.
While “The Mai” had only one male role, the title character’s straying, long-absent husband, the 10-actor complement of “Portia Coughlan” is evenly divided between the sexes.
If the wayward, cello-playing spouse of “The Mai,” returning to his Offaly home after an absence of five years or more, seemed to be given something of a raw deal by his playwright, accorded little stage time and nothing much in the way of compassion, the same cannot honestly be said of the five men in “Portia Coughlan,” although the play’s vibrant core remains at all times Portia.
The Offaly world Carr remembers and/or envisions is still a universe where women seem to hold sway, to one extent or another, in spite of the fact that their relationships with one another may be equally as rocky as their dealings with the frequently disappointing men with whom they share their lives, their bottles, and their mostly restless beds.
Carr finds Portia in a nearly somnolent state, unable to deal with her children, incapable of picking up after them, and seemingly unwilling to focus her thoughts on much of anything beyond the fifth of brandy that sits on the breakfast table of the production’s clever unit set, embracing the Coughlan home, with one ivy-covered wall broken away to provide the rock-strewn riverbank so vital to the play’s action. In addition, beyond the dining area, Boritt’s set makes room for the bar to which the heroine retreats with a couple of perhaps ill-chosen friends at times of stress.
The universe inhabited by Carr’s restless characters is filled with enough angry secrets to keep a dozen villages amply supplied with juicy tidbits for a year or so.
In “Portia Coughlan,” these unhappy Midlands folk visit damage upon one another with little seeming sense of responsibility. The angriest of Carr’s characters is probably the wheelchair-bound foul-mouthed old grandmother, Blaize Scully, keeper of most of the family’s guilty secrets, rendered with suitable vitriol by the unfailing Pauline Flanagan, who played the role in both Dublin and London.
Known mainly as an excellent actress, here making her directorial debut, Margaret Whitton knows how to give an actor his or her moment, and her instincts are fully engaged at every turning of “Portia Coughlan,” much to the production’s benefit.
In the demanding, slightly diaphanous title role, Pamela J. Gray makes a lithe, sympathetic heroine, managing to paper over most of the motivational cracks left by the playwright’s apparent unwillingness to “explain” her drama’s pivotal figure to the point of transparency.
Steve MacGoldrick is suitably steely and uncomprehending as Portia’s alienated husband, while Matte Osian is appropriately charismatic and equally uncaring as the younger local stud to whom she turns for physical release. In smaller roles, Edward Tully is an annoyingly vain publican, and Max Baker is the compliant Senchil Doorley, the husband prostitute Maggie May Doorley, played by Randy Danson, acquired in London.
Dan Ziskie and Donna Mitchell make brief but emphatic appearances as Portia’s parents, Sly and Marianne Scully, a couple with a dark secret of their own. Bernadette Quigley, who recently appeared in the Milwaukee Rep’s production of playwright Carr’s “The Mai,” brings a unique sense of recklessness to the odd, underwritten role of Portia’s friend Stacia, locally known as “The Cyclops,” because, in a manner left unexplained, she has somewhere along the line lost an eye.
Marina Carr has such a distinctly singular voice as a writer that it’s puzzling that it’s never been heard in New York. The Actors Studio Free Theater deserves much credit for providing this fine young Irish writer with a platform, as does Margaret Whitton for delivering “Portia Coughlan” in such vivid, viable condition.