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Theater Review: Savoring ‘Rum and Vodka’ at Fringe Festival

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

"Rum & Vodka," by Conor McPherson, Red Room, 85 East 4th Street, 3rd floor, New York International Fringe Festival, through Aug. 29.

By Joseph Hurley

Midway through Conor McPherson’s riveting, disturbing one-actor tragi-comedy, "Rum & Vodka," the nameless speaker, known only as ‘The Man," identifies himself as not being good at describing things, something that could never be said of the 27-year-old Dublin-born playwright.9

McPherson, who came to local prominence last season with a hit off-Broadway play, "St. Nicholas," followed by a well-received film, "I Went Down," has the rich writerly knack of being able to create a verdant rural landscape, a jumble of Dublin streets and landmarks, or a shoving crowd of upscale trendoids crowded into a trendy Grafton Street bar, all with relatively few words, not one of them wasted.

"Rum & Vodka" resembles one of those Ring Lardner stories in which the reader gains a vastly different image of the narrator from the one he appears to be trying to deliver.

As played by John O’Callaghan, a young Dubliner now living in Toronto, McPherson’s 60-minute monologue is one of the easily recognized early hits of the second running of the New York International Fringe Festival, a massive effort running through Sunday night at a variety of Lower East Side venues, most of them contained within a rough square bordered by Pitt Street on the East, East 4th Street on the North, Broadway on the west and Henry Street on the South.

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The character at the core of "Rum & Vodka" is a civil servant, an unambitious energetic native of North Dublin who describes himself as "the real nine to five animal, and as being "twenty-four going on twenty-five," this last comment being more significant to the heart of the play than it might initially appear to be.

Married at 20, McPherson’s hero, if he can be called that, finds himself the father of two small daughters and the husband of the girl, Marie, whom he’d courted since both of them were 18-year-olds growing up in Dublin’s Raheny district.

He has become, in short, the prisoner of the shopping cart his wife wheels through the aisles of the Kilbarrack shopping mall where they shop. Coincidentally or not, Kilbarrack is the same North Dublin area which novelist Roddy Doyle recreated in his books as "Barrytown."

In a fit of rebellion against the tedium of his job, ‘The Man" throws the computer terminal at which he works out of his office window, and when it crashes through the windshield of his employer’s automobile, he assumes, wrongly, as it turns out, that he has joined the ranks of the unemployed.

Fleeing the binds of his domestic arrangement, he makes the rounds of the Dublin bar scene, often with his friends, Phil and Declan. In one favored spot, having his usual "pint and a short," he looks across the bar and sees Myfanwy, the girl from Clontarf, her long brown hair shining in the dim light of the room.

Seemingly always on the verge of drunken nausea, ‘The Man" accompanies Myfanwy to her family’s darkly elaborate home, which he thinks "smells like the sea," turning to her for sex, solace, and, when morning arrives, a chance to wash his vomit-soiled clothing.

The rich girl eventually takes him to a party, but not until she has dressed him in clothing belonging, apparently, to her brother, to whose apartment she drives him in her expensive car. The well-heeled party guests, some of whom ‘The Man’ had encountered in the bar, turns out to be a gaggle of Dublin dissolutes who could easily stand in for the coven of urban vampires McPherson dreamed up for a scene in "St. Nicholas."


At base, "Rum & Vodka" is a gleefully tragic self-portrait of a young man whose life seems to be spinning utterly out of control, and who doesn’t very much mind, given the evidence at hand, damaging the people with whom he comes into contact. His "victims" range from the errant Dubliners with whom he brawls in bars in the gray area in which he dwells after he’s ordered one too many pints, or, as the play progresses, a rum and vodka or two he’d clearly have been better off without.

"Rum & Vodka" is the work of a young writer who may, in time, prove to be the leader of the pack, capable of producing plays with greater range and depth than those which have already brought considerable acclaim to one or two of his contemporaries.

The question which always arises in connection with Conor McPherson is whether or not he will sooner or later learn to write more conventional stageplays, works in which the characters actually talk to each other, as opposed to addressing themselves directly to the theater audience in lengthy monologues.

In fact, McPherson has already done so, with a play, "The Weir," which is currently running in London and is scheduled to open in New York sometime in the coming season. In the published version of "The Weir," the action takes place in "a small rural bar" in, the playwright says, Northwest Leitrim or Sligo, and the play’s five characters do, in fact, engage in dialogue.

Meanwhile, "Rum & Vodka" which was one of the successes at Toronto’s "Fringe" last month, provides a welcome look at the work of a fine writer from whom more, much more, will be heard. in addition, McPherson’s chronicle of a doomed young Dubliner’s 72-hour-descent into a kind of personal hell serves to introduce an unusually agile and appealing young actor in the person of the gifted John O’Callaghan, who manages, despite the odds, to maintain a measure of sympathy for an unprepossessing "hero."

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