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Theater Review The return of the prodigal son

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

LOCATING THE PLANT, by Tim Marks. Directed by Paula D’Alessandris. Starring Sean Heeney, Richard Lester, Trish McGettrick, Daniel Haughey, Mark Hankla, Laura James-Flynn and Matthew Hennesey. At the Irish Arts Center, 553 West 51st Street, NYC. Through Oct. 1.

The materials of Tim Marks’s "Locating the Plant" couldn’t be more direct or less obscure, once it’s made clear that the title doesn’t refer to a search for the perfect begonia.

In the terse, no-nonsense drama, at the Irish Arts Center through Oct. 1, Barry McCann, a Belfast-born entrepreneur in his late 30s returns to his home city after some 18 years in the United States, during which time he has lost most of his Northern Ireland speech patterns and gained the slick shell of an American-style business striver.

He returns to his mainly dysfunctional family, composed of an embittered older brother, Kieran, laying low at home after 15 years in prison for alleged IRA activities, and a long-suffering, well-intentioned mother who’s mainly concerned with keeping a lid on a potentially volatile and dangerous situation.

The time is somewhere in the mid-1980s, and British soldiers move at will through the sad streets of West Belfast, violating what passes for domestic tranquility at will, arms at the ready. Kieran, like his mates, expected to be "lifted" and sent back to prison at the merest whim of the English "occupiers."

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It is this uneasy and unraveling civil fabric into which the returning McCann inserts himself, his stated objective being to secure a location for the construction of an ‘rospace venture which will bring employment to a vast number of Belfast residents, currently suffering from a rapidly rising rate of unemployment.

But where, precisely, to place the plant? In the Catholic area, where employment is at its worst, or in the mainly Protestant quarter, where the domestic surface could be said to be somewhat calmer?

McCann, mistrusted by everyone and mistakenly considered an interloper bearing a hidden agenda, unavoidably stirs up the ashes in the banked fires of dormant sibling rivalry dating back decades, when he and Kieran were in their teens. Now, in his elder brother’s eyes, Barry is the "all-Ireland running away champ."

To Barry, Kieran is a shell of a man, an angry enigma, rancorous and virtually unreachable, spending his nights cowering in his mother’s sitting room, "eating curry and chips and watching ‘Coronation Street,’ " all the while trying to stay out of the clutches of the household’s mysterious English lodger who claims his name is Terry Biggs, which it almost certainly isn’t.

Playwright Marks certainly knows whereof he writes. Describing himself as "a Welshman who lives in Baltimore," he is actually the son of a Waterford man and a veteran of time spent in Belfast as a member of the British army, part of a Bomb Disposal Unit for a period on which he appears to look back with a mixture of anger and sorrow.

Directed with a suitably no-frills efficiency by Paula D’Alessandris, "Locating the Plant" comes across as an entirely credible and accurately reproduced portrait of an intensely lamentable moment in fairly recent Irish history. A more experienced, or perhaps merely more devious writer might have complicated the mix with subtlety and subplots, but that is not Marks’s way.

Fifteen months ago another of his plays, "Pearldivers," was produced at the American Theatre of Actors with a standout cast including the two excellent Irish-born actors, Sean Heeney and Richard Lester, who play, respectively, the younger and older McCann brothers in "Locating the Plant."

Marks, a French polisher by trade, which explains why the current venture is a "Hand Rubbed Production," regards "Locating the Plant" and "Pearldivers" as Parts I and II of an uncompleted trilogy "dealing with the Celtic nation and how they travel." If Marks’s locution in that phrase is awkward and even misleading, his writer’s ear for the speech and situation of Belfast a decade-and-a-half ago is anything but, with virtually every speech and every scene ringing painfully, bitterly true.

The same was stingingly true of "Pearldivers," which dealt with a collection of mainly Irish drifters in a North London rooming house, plotting a crime they are emphatically too inept and too disorganized ever to pull off.

The remarkable Heeney and Lester are given strong support by Trish McGettrick as the boys’ mother, Daniel Haughey as that British boarder, Mark Hankla as a trigger-happy conscript, and by Laura James-Flynn as a sympathetic neighbor, widowed by the conflict at far too young an age.

Special mention should perhaps be made of Matthew Hennesey, a young American actor making his New York stage debut as Callan, a loose cannon of a local IRA chief, as panicky and mistrustful of his own intentions as he is of those harbored by the individuals with whom he comes into even casual contact.

Among Hennesey’s other virtues is a Northern Irish accent secure enough to hold its own in the mainly Irish-derived cast of "Locating the Plant." Part III of Tim Marks’s projected Irish trilogy, "Reel," is set in Baltimore, and it’ll be interesting to see how he feels his Celtic travelers adjust to life on this side of the Atlantic.

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