By Joseph Hurley
THE NUALAS. At the Third International Irish Comedy Festival. Irish Arts Center. Through Oct. 21.
The American flag, since the events of Sept. 11, is everywhere, but the last place you might expect to find Old Glory waving, or perhaps wiggling, is on the right-hand hips of the three gifted and funny women who call themselves The Nualas, and whose charming and original act has just made its U.S. debuts at the Irish Arts Center on West 51st Street.
Yet, there it is, undulating away, appliqued onto the blue jeans worn by the Nualas as they work their wry way through the 90-odd minutes of their performance, backed up by pianist Danny Sheridan, recently of “Riverdance.”
To sort things out right at the start, Susan Collins is the blonde one, placed dead center as they work. Anne Gildea is the tallest of the trio, the one on the right. The little one, standing on the left, in front of the piano, is Josephine O’Reilly.
For performance purposes, these beauties hide their natural glamour behind intentionally unbecoming spiky hairdos, with each of them sporting eyeglasses from start to finish, O’Reilly and Gildea favoring unpretentious, round frame, while Collins goes opting for a pair of the splashier, more attention-grabbing harlequin variety.
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Their Irish Arts Center opening marked their American debut, although they are familiar figures on Irish and English stages, so, as they worked, they were clearly feeling their way a bit, trying to determine which portions of their act would land effectively with audiences on this side of the Atlantic.
Surprisingly, the greatest strength displayed by The Nualas, effective as they are as comics, may well be their combined musical talents, which suggest they might easily make a go of it in the cabaret world as a close harmony singing group, somewhat in the manner of the warmly remembered Roswell Sisters, or even the Andrews Sisters.
The six songs they sing in the course of their act are collectively written, or at least appear to be, since no other credit appears in the arts Center’s program.
In the main, the songs, wonderfully sung by the performers, whose admirable diction makes certain that the audience is able to hear and understand the lyrics, deal with the problems faced by young, and maybe not quite so young, women in today’s Ireland, faced with shifting sexual values, a changing economic universe, and shaky political factors, to name just three items upon which the Nualas touch, glancingly or otherwise. Another of their concerns is the pain associated with “waxing” in the removal of body hair.
As they’ve elected to present themselves, the girls are single, somewhat man-hungry, sexually limited in terms of actual experience, and worried, overtly and covertly, about their ticking biological clocks.
In their own account of their collective history, O’Reilly, Gildea and Collins formed The Nualas “in a Dublin kitchen in May 1995.” Starting out at that city’s Comedy Cellar, the group has appeared as far from home as Australia, playing both Adelaide and Melbourne, and Singapore, where they were seen as part of the island city’s Comedy Festival in 1998.
They’ve done the Edinburgh Festival four times, are veterans of a six-part comedy series on BBC Radio Four, and, it goes without saying, frequently seen in Ireland, guesting regularly on the country’s top-rated TV program, “The Late, Late Show,” and appearing in such Dublin venues as the Andrews Lane Theatre and the Tivoli.
A year ago, the group did a 64-date tour of England and Wales, and in April of that year, they performed with the Corrs at the Royal Albert Hall, London, an experience that provided their current act with one of its more potent jokes.
In August of 2000, they did two shows on a single night at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Mall, selling out both of them. This was followed by two weeks in London’s West End.
On the stage, their requirements in terms of scenery are simple: three stools, three microphones, plus, at least at the Arts Center, a glittering silver curtain of the kind sometimes associated with burlesque houses.
Showing off their flag-draped attire, which they attribute to “an Irish cross-dresser named Donatella Versace McGuire,” the trio embarks on a comic cruise rooted, in large measure, in gentle self-deprecation of the sort that American audiences might readily associate with Carol Burnett and Lily Tomlin.
Following the splendid Niall Toibin in the Irish Arts Center’s 3rd International Irish Comedy Festival, The Nualas bring a bright, fresh presence to New York’s theatrical comedy scene. Make that three presences, actually, since, despite the teamwork, the person’ and the eye-glasses, O’Reilly, Gildea and Collins remain three compelling individuals.