By Joseph Hurley
THE TRAMWAY END, by Dermot Bolger. Starring Ray Yeates. Produced by Command Performance Productions and Chelsea Live. At the Chelsea Playhouse, 125 West 22nd St. Through Sept. 27.
It would be extremely difficult to predict what audiences unfamiliar with the Irish sporting scene of a decade ago would make of Dermot Bolger’s brief, one-actor play "The Tramway End," currently at the Chelsea Playhouse at 125 West 22nd St.
A young man, Eoin, with a green-and-white Ireland soccer team scarf wound around his neck, stands on the black-walled stage, with a couple of benches placed at adjacent angles to indicate, it turns out, that we are in a railway junction.
The otherwise barren station, it becomes clear, is in Hamburg, and the solitary speaker, an Irish-born worker who has emigrated to Germany in order to get a job he couldn’t have secured in his home country, has just seen the Irish soccer team lose to Holland in the 1988 European championships and thereby eliminated from competition.
It was the first time the Irish team had ever reached the European tournament, and, with Jack Charlton as the new manager, the mere act of qualifying indicated great days for Irish sport, aided no end by what became known as the "Grandfather Rule," an invention of the Football Association of Ireland.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
Under the new provision, players normally associated with British teams could play for Ireland if they happened to be the product of an Irish parent or grandparent. Obviously, the rule provided Charlton with a vastly enlarged talent pool from which to assemble his teams.
Bolger, born in Dublin in 1959, had seen the Irish team play in Denmark in 1984, an experience that started him thinking about the question of identity, particularly Irish identity, which is at the heart of the 60-minute play, which was first performed at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 1990 under the title "In High Germany." At that time the play was on a double bill with another Bolger work, "The Holy Ground." When the plays were published, the volume which contained them was called "The Tramway End," hence the new production’s title.
The current staging, the work of Command Performance Productions and Chelsea Live, features Dubliner Ray Yeates, who also co-produced, as Eoin and is scheduled to run through Sept. 27.
As Eoin waits for his train connection, he ponders his Irish origins, and even the conditions of travel in his native country, where, he claims, you have to spend two hours in Limerick Junction, no matter what your destination might be.
Sitting in the stands as Ireland played Holland, Eoin finds himself looking at "Irish faces with foreign accents," by which, of course, he means Irish-derived individuals whose parents have left the country and resettled in Germany, England, or elsewhere, because of the need for work.
The transplanted Eoin remembers his own father, who worked for an American-owned company in Ireland until the job ended, forcing him to find work in England in order to keep his family afloat.
The younger man, trapped in Germany, remembers his own childhood, even the grass that forced its way up through the concrete that served as a playing field during his adolescence, and wonders about the fates that befell the Irish youngsters with whom he played in those vanished days.
Dermot Bolger, a novelist and playwright who was represented on the stage of the Irish Arts Center by his full-length play "The Lament for Arthur Cleary" a few seasons ago, deserves to be better known in New York.
It might have served Bolger better had Yeates and his colleagues opted to have staged "The Holy Ground" as well as its companion piece. On its own, lasting barely an hour, "The Tramway End", aka "In High Germany," is a peculiar offering, truthful and often inventive in terms of its text, but, in performance, more suggestive of a longish audition piece than an actual play.
Complicating the mix is the work’s extreme similarity one-actor venture with a heavy focus on Irish soccer. This is, of course, "One Night in November," by Belfast playwright Marie Jones, a production starring Northern Ireland actor Dan Gordon, briefly seen in New York this past season, and due to return for a 12-week run at off-Broadway’s Douglas Fairbanks Theatre, starting on Oct. 4.
Jones’s play, centering on the 1994 World Cup match between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in Belfast’s Windsor Park, deals with religious bigotry much in the way in which "The Tramway End," which sometimes seems vaguely out of date, concentrates on its focal character’s feelings of uprootedness and disorientation.
Yeates, an energetic actor with a tendency toward text-obliterating shrillness, a situation not aided by the poor acoustics of the hard-walled Chelsea Playhouse, pours his heart and soul into Bolger’s confused Eoin, at times finding effective ways of pumping physical action into what is basically a static monologue.
As written, and, for the most part, as performed in the current production, Bolger’s Eoin is a decent man of limited insight, an individual whose grasp of the subtleties of his situation isn’ t very much firmer when he leaves us, striding up the aisle of the Chelsea Playhouse, than it was when we first saw him, cheering the Irish team from a platform above the stage.