By Joseph Hurley
NIALL TOIBIN: Third International Irish Comedy Festival. At the Irish Arts Center, 553 West 51st St., NYC. Through Sept. 30.
A well-known British star of Irish extraction, in town to promote a movie that opened last week, upon hearing that Niall Toibin, with whom he had worked at London’s National Theatre some years ago, and whom he respects and likes, was doing “stand-up comedy” at the Irish Arts Center, said, “It can’t be the same man. Toibin doesn’t do stand-up.”
Well, he does do a form of stand-up, and he’s back at the Irish Arts Center, as part of group’s 3rd International Irish Comedy Festival, doing a variation on the show he called “An Evening with Niall Toibin,” which he did last March.
At age 71, the graceful, dignified Toibin would probably not be described by journalists as “funky” or even particularly “feisty.” Surely, “phenomenally funny” applies, but it isn’t, by itself, the key to Toibin’s solid success and lasting impact. If there is one single element that “explains” him, it is probably his considerable skill and vast experience as an actor. Contemporary audiences probably know him best as Father Frank McAnally, the parish priest of the recently cancelled series “Ballykissangel,” an assignment that occupied him for large portions of the last six seasons.
Toibin, whose first major impact in New York dates to 1970, when he played Brendan Behan in the award-winning Broadway production of “Borstal Boy,” comes equipped with a rich and varied stage background, including countless appearances, often in classic roles, in Dublin and in London.
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Opening his current run under the worst possible circumstances, with a first performance scheduled for the night after the World Trade Center disaster, Toibin was faced with an uphill fight that might have crippled many a lesser performer.
Like most other New York theaters, the Arts Center was dark on Wednesday night, but scheduled a performance the following evening, Thursday, Sept. 13.
For the first show of his current stand, Toibin reached his copious store of knowledge of Brendan Behan for his first words to his audience. Quoting from “Brendan Behan’s New York,” he said that the late author had written “To America, my new-found land. The man that hates you hates the human race.”
Then he read a brief, sobering fragment of Behan’s work entitled “A Woman of No Standing,” after which he launched into his familiar stories and anecdotes, which he lumps into three loose categories, namely drink, sex and politics.
Those labels serve Toibin well, but what he’s really doing is grounded not only in his considerable theatrical skills, but in his vast knowledge of the Irish character in all its ambiguities and peculiarities as well.
Among his finely honed skills is a first-rate ear, which enables him to move from county to county in Ireland, and even from city to city, as he works his way through the storehouse of jokes, anecdotes and observances that he draws upon when he’s constructing one of the dozen or so “evenings” he’s created and performed since 1971. That was when he started writing and performing one-man shows in such venues as Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre and Shelbourne Hotel, not to mention the Cork Opera House in his native city. By now, there have been around a dozen of the star’s “evenings.”
Impeccably attired as always, Toibin stands before his audience in an immaculate white linen jacket, this time over a dark brown shirt and brown slacks, and delivers an acutely timed, comfortably rendered 90 minutes or so.
On his second night, Toibin dispensed with the material drawn from Behan, and proceeded with his normal show, as though nothing untoward had taken place in the world beyond the walls of the Irish Arts Center.
The decision to return to “normal” turned out to be a wise one, since the audience, although filling only a third to a half of the theater, was clearly grateful for having been given the opportunity to express themselves with the kind of gentle laughter invoked by Toibin’s easygoing stories of bookies and barmen, farmers and fools, and liars and layabouts.
Among the liars, Toibin zeroes in on a clutch of Irish politicians, past and present, studding his jokes with real names, sparing none, the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, included.
As always, Toibin is by now so comfortable with both his material and his audience that he might easily be telling his stories in the confines of a family living room.
Toibin has a nice gift for the well-turned phrase, referring to one GAA stalwart, accused of “robustness of play,” as behaving “like a kangaroo on Ecstasy.”
For Toibin, his country is now “one enormous film set,” a comment he uses as an introduction to some pithy comments about movies and the way the Irish watch them. He claims, for example, that he once heard a female patron, after watching a scene in which a pair of lovers, disrobing as their passion mounts, scatter their clothing around the room, say aloud, “That’s right, just throw them anywhere for somebody else to pick up for you.”
Toibin walks a fine line between the homespun and knife-edged, and he’s gifted and valuable at both ends of his own range.
If there’s a problem it may be that some of his material has become a bit bearded through lengthy use, a fact that doesn’t seem to disturb his audiences in the least.
Toibin concludes his current show as he always winds up his performances, with a Cork-based number in which a Corkonian, asked to refrain from singing the locally over-familiar “The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee,” manages to conflate that favorite not only with “Jerusalem,” a hymn sometimes known as “The Holy City,” but with “The Holy Ground,” a number long associated with the Clancy Brothers.
In Niall Toibin, who has come to resemble the mature Spencer Tracy, the Irish Arts Center has chosen the perfect performer to kick off the Third International Irish Comedy Festival.