By Joseph Hurley
PADDYWACK, by Daniel Magee. Directed by Mickey Kelly. Featuring Declan Mooney, Sean Power, Mickey Kelly, Aileen Flood-Larkin, Joe McCormack and Fiana Toibin. Macalla Theatre Company, Woodlawn Heights PresbyterianChurch, 240th Street and Martha Avenue, Woodlawn, the Bronx. Through Nov. 16.
When "Paddywack," Daniel Magee’s concise, powerful study of racial bigotry and hatred in a working-class London boarding house, circa 1980, was produced as part of the Long Wharf Theatre’s 1994-1995 season, it seemed to be a salty but rather conventional melodrama adrift on the huge New Haven stage, resembling, to an extent, a minnow in a bathtub. In addition, its potential impact was dampened by a tepid cast.
Now the Ulster-born playwright’s stinging tragicomedy has returned in a modest but restorative and enormously effective staging by the Bronx-based Macalla Theatre Company, directed by the group’s Artistic Director, Mickey Kelly, who also appears as the eldest of the rooming house’s clients, the disillusioned and burned-out Dubliner Michael.
Good as the veteran Kelly is, the play’s central nervous system is primarily the property of the four youngest members of the six-character cast, the three other boarders and the female university student and would-be journalist who complicates the lives of two of them.
The downward spiral of dramatist Magee’s plot is set into motion when the shabby-genteel rooming house run by Mrs. Somers (the acceptable but sometimes inaudible Aileen Flood Larkin) acquires a new boarder in the taciturn, enigmatic person of Damien, who presents himself as a clerk from Northern Ireland, but whom the others, particularly the malevolent Cockney, Brian, suspect may be an IRA bomber intent on doing damage in London.
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Colin, the establishment’s sole middle-class tenant, is a graduate student who reads biographies of Mahatma Gandhi and searches out video cassettes of classic art films like Jean Cocteau’s "Beauty and the Beast," with which to delight Annette, his left-leaning university classmate, who soon develops a powerful attraction for the mysterious new arrival from Belfast.
"Paddywack," with its central figure suffering the effects of an identity projected onto him out of the needs and neuroses of his colleagues, owes a certain undeniable something to both Sean O’Caseys "Shadow of a Gunman" and John Millington Synge’s "The Playboy of the Western World," although its energies stem from author Magee’s own experiences as a construction worker in London during a period of particularly virulent anti-Irish sentiment.
The basement of a Korean Presbyterian Church in Woodlawn, with a few rows of spectators seated on folding chairs, may seem like an exceedingly unlikely site for a crystal-clear, curative production of a play initially done rather poorly by one of the nation’s leading, and better-funded, regional theaters, but that’s precisely the situation with the Macalla production of "Paddywack."
The reason, of course, can be traced more or less directly to director Kelly’s inspired casting. Anyone even remotely interested in up-and-coming Irish and Irish-oriented performers, actors who very probably have rich and glowing futures ahead of them, will find no fewer than four of them in "Paddywack."
Magee’s play, as witty and as intelligent as it is compelling in terms of its magnetically melodramatic plotline, unavoidably hinges on the character of Damien, the stranger from the North, an intelligent loner too proud to offer craven and demeaning explanations, and reckless enough to risk a romance with the potential to lead him into exceedingly deep water.
Declan Mooney, who gave a splendid, freewheeling performance in the title role of Martin Lynch’s "Rinty" for Macalla last season, is an extraordinarily complex and intelligent Damien, turning a deeply enigmatic character, a role that might easily have emerged as an unyielding blur, into a wholly credible, entirely sympathetic human being without ever begging for audience empathy. Damien, deliberately and rigorously underwritten by the playwright, is wonderfully realized by actor Mooney in a performance of genuine originality.
Just as fine in a role that threatens constantly to slide into unsubtle, single-dimensional villainy is another "Rinty" veteran, the galvanic Sean Power, who makes the diabolical and Iago-like Brian, Damien’s primary antagonist, into a genuinely terrifying entity.
Without ever giving way to the melodramatic pitfalls inherent in the role, Power digs deep enough to reveal a neurotic Londoner driven close to madness by ethnic loathing and a sense that he is losing touch with the changing world that surrounds him. Like Mooney, actor Power is very definitely someone to watch.
Much the same thing could be said, albeit to a very slightly lesser degree, of the two other performers who round out the cast’s youthful and distinctly promising quartet of relative newcomers.
Fiana Toibin, the statuesque and gifted daughter of actor Niall Toibin, gives a strong account of herself as Annette, the bright one-time university graduate and journalistic hopeful who realizes that her school chum, Colin, having descended from the moneyed middle class to experience "real life" in a boarding house, isn’t really to be taken all that seriously. Toibin achieves the difficult goal of making a stage character’s liberal ideas appear to be her own, and not merely those of the playwright who created the part.
In what might be the play’s most difficult role, a character always hovering on the edge of ludicrousness, former Dubliner Joe McCormack somehow manages to make the naive Colin much more than merely a cartoon of privileged liberal condescension, a mindless idealist slumming in the domain of the working class. McCormack, whose Colin reads George Orwell without really understanding him, retains a well of compassion for a role that could have emerged as a foolish and dangerous dilettante.
Macalla’s fine, strong "Paddywack" is an utterly sterling example of what a cast of mainly gifted performers, intelligently guided by a caring and imaginative director, can do with a text whose considerable merits were obscured in an earlier, inferior production.
And remember the names of those four young standouts: Fiana Toibin, Joe McCormack, Sean Power, and Declan Mooney, with, perhaps, particular emphasis on the latter pair.
Once again, the church basement at 240th Street and Martha Avenue in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx, is absolutely bursting with talent, as it was a year ago with "Rinty."
"Paddywack" plays Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 and Sundays at 5 p.m., with a special closing performance on Monday evening, Nov. 16. For information and reservations, call (914) 776-2218.