By Joseph Hurley
LIVERPOOL FANTASY, by Larry Kirwan, Irish Arts Center, 553 West 51st St. Through June 28, perhaps longer.
A singularly imaginative germinating idea on the part of playwright Larry Kirwan combines with a standout performance by Dublin-born actor Colin Lane in the central role to make “Liverpool Fantasy,” at the Irish Arts Center through Sunday, and possibly longer, an unexpectedly sparkling stage experience, particularly as directed by Brian Leahy Doyle with an unusually solid eight-actor cast.
The spark that ignited Kirwan, perhaps better known as the creator and lead performer of the Irish rock group Black 47 than as a writer, was simply this: What if one of the many fights that flared up between John Lennon and manager Brian Epstein had proved sufficiently deadly to cause the Beatles to disband after their first single had been cut and well before they became famous?
Starting with that one compelling thought, Kirwan starts his galvanic play in December 1962, gives us the argument between the fiery, restless Lennon, thunderingly well-played by Lane without much, if anything, in the way of an inherent resemblance to the brightest, most difficult member of the group, and then flashes forward 30 years to the early 1990s.
The play’s swift leap in time takes a bit of getting used to, since the uniformly excellent actors portraying the Fab Four make the transition without the aid of makeup or even very much in the way of costume changes.
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Kirwan would conceivably have been kinder to his strong cast if he hadn’t required such a broad time jump, but had, perhaps, settled for a move of perhaps 20 years, which indeed was the case when he wrote the play in 1986, with a cast including three members of the present group. The performers who did the play almost a dozen years ago, in addition to the remarkable Lane, are Denis O’Neil, subtle and persuasive in the somewhat underwritten role of George Harrison, the least well-known Beatle, and Jean Parker, who originated the role of the loyal Maureen, the girl who, in Kirwan’s vision, lives with the placid, undemanding Richard Starkey, familiar to the world as Ringo Starr.
In Kirwan’s mainly dark-hued projection of the story of the century’s most successful musical group, Lennon is embittered and mainly unemployed, while Harrison has become a Jesuit priest, has suffered a mental breakdown and is about to leave his religious order. Ringo has settled for a life of an anonymous drummer, jobbing in with bands which play Liverpool and then move on.
Only Paul McCartney has attained anything that could conventionally be called success. Having changed his name to Paul Montana, he has become something of a fixture as, it seems, a lounge act in Las Vegas and elsewhere in America. Divorced three times, he returns to Liverpool for a reunion with his former partners and brings along Lu-Anne, a flashy Vegas chorus bimbo who could easily be indicted for abuse of mascara, and who, in the current production, is played a bit broadly but with a vibrant sense of fun by Louise Carpino.
Patrick Welsh’s handsome Paul is a particularly moving portrait of a hollow man in shabbily expensive clothing, while Anthony Bertram is spot on as the all-accepting, uncomplicated Ringo.
In the play’s briefest role, that of Lennon’s former wife, Cynthia, the elegant Elizabeth Hess underplays to great effect the part of a woman who, despite the passage of years, still cares deeply for a man with whom she found it impossible to live.
The young actor, Will Harrison, the grandson of the late Sir Rex, does yeoman service in a variety of roles ranging from manager Epstein and Lennon’s son, Julian, to a couple of particularly unpleasant members of the Fascistic National Front, a right-wing political organization that, in Kirwan’s account of things, has pretty much taken control of things in Britain, making Liverpool 1992 resemble a scene from Hitler’s Germany circa 1936.
Kirwan’s attempt to update his story drags in references to Mother Teresa and the Spice girls, not to mention George Michael and Whitney Houston, dropped names which, in addition to being irrelevant and oddly jarring, complicate the hard-working actors’ already difficult task to the point of near impossibility in terms of the time leap.
“Liverpool Fantasy” has, of necessity, been given a modest production by the Irish Arts Center’s new producing director, Pauline Turley, but director Doyle, whose staging of Brian Friel’s “Translations” was a highlight of the group’s season a year ago, has such a secure grip on his materials that hints of stage poverty matter little if at all. Designer Beverly Bronson’s Merseyside sitting room is, within limits, wholly satisfactory.
Keeping Kirwan’s view of a hardscrabble Liverpool “future” front and center at all times, Doyle drives his actors through the material with admirable energy and somehow manages to make his playwright’s wildest flights of fancy surprisingly credible and very frequently moving.
At the core, always, is Colin Lane’s astonishingly believable portrait of John Lennon, edgy, angry, dangerous and endlessly involving. Lane’s risky, all-stops-out performance embraces the intelligence for which its subject was famous, yet leaves room for the strong sense of unrest and the abrasiveness which were also famously a part of Lennon’s constitution.
Larry Kirwan’s “Liverpool Fantasy” has its rough patches in terms of well-mannered dramaturgy, but, as mounted on the Irish Arts Center’ s newly refurbished stage, it’s compelling from start to finish.