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Theater Review: Unconventional staging of a lost classic

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

THE WHITEHEADED BOY by Lennox Robinson. Directed by Gerard Stembridge. Adapted by Barabbas . . . the company. Featuring Mikel Murfi, Raymond Keane and Veronica Coburn. Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Lichtenstein Theater (formerly The Majestic Theater). Recently completed run.

The four-actor cast of Lennox Robinson’s "The Whiteheaded Boy," playing an extremely limited, five-performance run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s recently renamed Harvey Theater last week as part of BAM’s 1999 New Wave Festival, had the audience eating out of its collective hand. Literally.

In the first of the play’s three acts, three of the performers, playing a variety of roles, mainly the members of one family, plus their neighbors and friends, prepare an elaborate afternoon tea for the troupe’s fourth member, the eponymous hero of Robinson’s 1916 comedy, arriving home after a long sojourn away.

Announcing the "interval," or intermission, the actors invite the audience to dispose of the cream cakes and soda bread on the table, bringing the dishes and platters within reach of the individuals in the first few rows, onlookers who attacked the proffered items, at least at the Thursday night performance, with the avidity of a pack of starved dogs.

"The Whiteheaded Boy," an appealingly imaginative production of the Dublin-based organization which calls itself "Barabbas . . . the company," is the first real attraction to play the "Harvey" since the theater, formerly the Majestic, was renamed in honor of BAM’s managing director, Harvey Lichtenstein, who retired a few weeks ago after a long tenure with the Brooklyn establishment, which he could be said almost to have brought back from the graveyard of lost and abandoned theater spaces.

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This particular staging of Robinson’s most popular play might best be described as a kind of Irish variation on the "Story Theater" techniques devised and developed some three or four decades ago by director Paul Sills, a form of playmaking in which the actors deliver portions of the narrative directly to the audience at times, and at other moments take on a variety of roles, men, women, children, and even animals, as required.

Robinson’s beloved comedy classic, frequently revived by the Abbey Theatre, for which it was written, is described by the actors, in a kind of introductory comment to the audience, as "a well-made play in three acts," and then embark on what might as easily be defined as the Irish equivalent of the sort of "deconstruction" frequently practiced by the Wooster Group and certain other New York organizations.

Denis Geoghegan, the titular character, is so-called not because he is his family’s "fair-haired boy" in the sense of favoritism, but because of his startlingly blonde hair, heightened in the current production by the fact that Louis Lovett has, or had one evening last week, a case of "five o’clock shadow" rivaling that of the late Richard M. Nixon.

The occasion for that elegant tea layout is Denis’s return from Dublin, where he has been a student at medical college, having too good a time, with the result that he has failed his examinations, and not for the first time.

The family’s solution to the "Denis problem" is to send him to Canada. All too keenly aware of his relatives’ passion for "respectability," Denis tries to get even by breaking off his engagement to Delia Duffy, daughter of the town’s wealthiest, most powerful man.

The result is a breach-of-promise suit, which would bring scandal down on the family’s good name, a disgrace narrowly averted by the intervention of "Aunt Ellen," referred to in the Oxford Companion to Irish Literature as "one of Robinson’s most delightful creations," played here by Veronica Coburn, who co-founded "Barabbas . . . the company" in 1993.

Two other co-founders, Raymond Keane and Mikel Murfi, dressed, like Coburn, in "uniforms" made up of black trousers, gray shirts and gray sleeveless pullovers, lay out the story (along with the tea), before Denis appears, late in the first act.

The jovial trio work their way through routines and comic bits of the sort which result from, and only from, a longish history of working together.

In this sort of "well-made" play, pleasing the audience is everything, which Lennox Robinson knew only too well, with the evidence being the manner in which he dots his i’s and crosses his t’s, with Aunt Ellen agreeing to marry the widowed Mr. Duffy, and Denis inheriting his aunt’s shop, which will be managed by the no-longer-offended Delia.

It would be difficult to know, given the evidence at hand, whether or not a more conventional staging of "The Whiteheaded Boy" would work in today’s theater, but the unconventional staging given it by "Barabbas . . . the company," directed by Gerard Stembridge, definitely succeeds in the area of audience-pleasing, judging from the standing ovation, accompanied by a fair amount of energetic cheering, which accorded it as at least one of its BAM performances ended last week.

A program note from director Stembridge expresses his view that "it is clear that Robinson is fascinated and greatly amused by the fictions that people agree upon," and "how their personal desires drive them to refute reality or to twist it into something ‘acceptable,’ " and, to an extent, these are the ideas on which he has based his production.

Robinson, the largely home-schooled son of a Protestant minister, worked for nearly a decade as a librarian in the Limerick-Kerry district, living in the home of a family named O’Brien in the town of Cahirmoyle, where he wrote "The Whiteheaded Boy," using Mrs. Mabel O’Brien as the template for Aunt Ellen.

Robinson worked at the Abbey for much of his career, and published an "official history" of the Dublin playshop in 1951, seven years before his death.

The forced-perspective scenery designed by Sean Hillen, clearly and effectively made for touring, resembles a curving Cinema-Scope screen, with "McInerney & Sons" emporium to the left and "Duffy’s" across the way, with the church holding forth at the distant end of the cobbled street. The Geoghegan homestead is furnished with box-like black-and-white chairs and sofa, plus a functional table for that abundant tea, while a charming model of the set stands on a side table, ready to be moved here and there through the course of the performance.

The Barabbas production of "The Whiteheaded Boy," which debuted in Dublin in 1992 and has toured Ireland extensively since then, in addition to stops in England and Wales, and now New York, should go a long way toward reacquainting theater audiences with Lennox Robinson, a once-valued and now almost wholly forgotten Irish dramatist of the first half of the present century.

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