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Theater Review Promising U.S. debut for ‘Rookie’ playwright O’Rowe

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

HOWIE THE ROOKIE, by Mark O’Rowe. Directed by Mike Bradwell . Starring Aidan Kelly and Karl Shiels. A Bush Theatre production, at P.S. 122, 160 First Ave., NYC. Through Jan. 27.

Theater history courses maintain that modern drama began when on the stages of ancient Greece, a single performer, traditionally alone, was joined by a second actor, and dialogue ensued.

There has been a reverse impulse of sorts, intensified in recent seasons, toward putting the stage back into the hands of an actor working alone, and nowhere has this urge met with greater success than at London’s Bush Theatre, the 29-year-old fringe organization which has become one of the city’s most admired venues.

Among the reasons for the Bush’s success has been its championing of hitherto unknown writers, many of them Irish, including Billy Roche and Conor McPherson, whose one-actor play "St. Nicholas," with Brian Cox as its star, debuted there and eventually enjoyed a substantial New York run, under a different management.

Now the Bush has brought one of its most celebrated productions, Mark O’Rowe’s "Rowie the Rookie," to P.S. 122 on First Avenue with its original cast members, Aidan Kelly and Karl Shiels, working under the guidance of the Bush’s artistic director, Mike Bradwell.

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Despite the presence in the cast of two astonishingly powerful young actors, both making their New York debuts, "Rowie the Rookie" remains a monologue of sorts, with each performer alone on stage for about 40 minutes as he delivers his share of a mordantly funny, frequently painful tale of two particularly terrible nights in Dublin’s netherworld.

The actors work before designer Ed Devlin’s starkly muted backdrop of charcoal grays and blacks, bisected by a length of barbed wire, sometimes bathed in golden light and sometimes almost invisible. A scarlet stripe crosses the stage floor like a silent warning not to venture beyond it.

Both characters, although unrelated, bear the same surname, Lee, a fact that triggers a number of casual references to the late Hong Kong martial arts film star Bruce Lee. Most of the members of the characters’ thuggish urban circle seem to move through their difficult lives with a definite article attached to the names by which they are known, hence "the" Howie and "the" Rookie.

"Howie the Rookie," like McPherson’s "St. Nicholas," has one rather disconcerting aspect; if the plot, or as much of it comes through the wall of Dublin street slang thrown up by Kelly and Shiels, is closely examined after the show is over, the events playwright O’Rowe and his galvanic actors have been relating begin to seem vaguely silly, with lavish details of a grudge feud instigated by the assassination of a gaggle of Siamese fighting fish, and, even more so, the troubles caused by the burning of a mattress supposedly contaminated by scabies.

Actors Kelly and Sheils, although they appear to be close in age, and are credible enough as accomplices capable of poisoning at least a handful of harsh Dublin nights, couldn’t be more different as performers. Kelly, long-legged and shambling in a pair of striped running pants, moves relatively little as he lurches into the first portion of O’Rowe’s tale, which is inherently a shaggy dog story which, in its second half, negotiates a distinct hairpin curve, darkening as it goes, and plunges into violence and tragedy.

By the time Sheils has received the narrative baton, the audience has, it is to be hoped, grown at least somewhat accustomed to the verbal thickets through which Kelly has led, or perhaps, in some cases, dragged them.

The details of "Howie the Rookie" range from the farcical to the blatantly horrifying. Director Bradwell has been quoted as saying that toward the end of the play’s second thrust, the segment entrusted to Shiels, individuals in the Bush audiences have frequently "put their hands over their eyes."

"Howie the Rookie" stands on its own as a magnetic, memorable piece of extremely intense writing, well worth a sojourn down to P.S. 122, where the play, extremely well-delivered by director Bradwell and his gifted actors, will be holding forth through the 27th in an engagement which probably won’t be extended, due to a previous booking at San Francisco’s Magic Theater.

It may have its roughnesses, but playwright O’Rose, just 30, seems to possess an authentic voice for the theater.

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