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Theater Review ‘Closing Time’ is tasty pub fare

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

CLOSING TIME, based on the works of Flann O’Brien. By Macdara Mac Uibh Aille. Mayfly Entertainment. Featuring Mickey Kelly, Sean Power, Tony Caffrey, Conor McManus and Brian Townes. At Arlene Grocery, 95 Stanton St., NYC. Through March 31.

The writer and journalist best known in Irish intellectual circles as Flann O’Brien occupied a position in his country’s literary life equivalent to that held in America by essayist and wit E.B. White.

That name, however, was only one of a half dozen or more pseudonyms used by a writer born in Strabane, Co. Tyrone, as Brian O’Nolan, the most celebrated probably being Myles na Gopaleen, which, as a civil servant writing a satirical column for the Irish Times, he adopted in the hope that he could write without jeopardizing his employment.

Now, Macdara Mac Uibh Aille, a theater artist from County Armagh in Northern Ireland, billing himself slyly as "director, producer and research scientist," has cobbled together an appealing, hour-length pub show he’s called "Closing Time," made up of various writings by O’Brien.

Of the several items comprising the brief, energetic show, lasting just an hour and being presented at Arlene Grocery on Stanton Street on the Lower East Side, one is a one-act O’Brien wrote, another is a direct fragment of his journalism, about the Dublin man’s relationship with his local, while a couple of others are O’Brien adaptations.

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Patrons entering the bar in Arlene’s inner sanctum might be warned that things are not entirely as they seem, that, for example, the man with his head on the bar may not actually be asleep. Latecomers, as happened on the venture’s opening night, in fact, risk becoming part of the show’s "action" as they make their way across Arlene’s playing area in an effort to find their seats.

In one appealing O’Brien fragment, an anonymous individual dropping in at a Dublin pub somehow manages to send out innocent vibes that convince his fellow pub-goers that he is an individual reeking of potential danger. In another sketch, a couple of regulars find an ingenious way of extending the pub’s hours of operation.

"Closing Time" is that rare theatrical venture that is sufficiently vibrant and yet brief enough to leave its viewers actually wanting more, which is something Mac Uibh Aille might take into consideration the next time an opportunity to do the show arises.

The current stand on Stanton Street is a production of the director’s company, Mayfly Entertainment, operating in conjunction with whatever remains of the old Macalla Theatre Company, which used to work out of a church basement in the Bronx.

For "Closing Time," Mac Uibh Aille has assembled a cast of welcome regulars from New York’s Irish acting pool, most of them familiar from such good Macalla shows as Martin Lynch’s "Rinty," including Mickey Kelly, Sean Power, Tony Caffrey, Conor McManus and Brian Townes, with especially appealing work being turned in, as usual, by Kelly and Power, on whose able shoulders the program’s heaviest load falls.

Since the event is advertised as "Pub theatre with live Irish music," Mac Uibh Aille has enlisted the services of Brian Holleran, who, although still an undergraduate at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, has mastered both the tin whistle and the concert flute.

Brian O’Nolan, or Flann O’Brien, or Myles na Gopaleen, if you prefer, died in 1966, at age 55. He is still very probably best known for his first book, "At Swim-Two-Birds," published in 1939 and described in Henry Boylan’s "Dictionary of Irish Biography" as "a novel about a man who is writing a novel about a man who is writing a novel."

In 1961, he published "The Hard Life," a book he called "an exegesis of squalor," and which he dedicated to writer Graham Greene, calling him a man "whose own forms of gloom I admire."

His column, "Crúiscín Lán," ran in the Irish Times for 20 years.

Macdara Mac Uibh Aille’s modest, charming "Closing Time" is a fast-moving hour of good, hearty pub fun, which, apart from its many other virtues, should serve to introduce the great Flann O’Brien to a new American audience.

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