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A CurtainUp Review
Cyprus Avenue

Well, I'm caught one more time
Up on Cyprus Avenue
Caught one more time
Up on Cyprus Avenue
— lyric from famous Van Morrison song about one of Belfast's more prosperous streets that's now the title of David Ireland's play about an alienated Ulster loyalist who lives on that memory evoking street.
Cyprus Avenue
Stephen Rea and Chris Corrigan(Photo:Ros Kavanaugh)
New York theatergoers all too rarely get to see the magnificent Stephen Rea live on stage. Some of us were lucky to see him live and up close in two off-Broadway productions by the late Sam Shepard —Ages of the Moon in 2010 at the Atlantic Theater and Particle of Dread in 2014, at the Public Theater. And it's at the Public, that we now have a new opportunity to see Rea proving himself to be a consummate actor in Cyprus Avenue, a new play by David Ireland.

The "troubles" that beset Ireland for years may be over, but not so for the play's central character Eric Miller (the superb Rea), a die-hard Ulster Republican living on the prosperous Belfast street for which the play is named. Life in modern Belfast has him in a state of emotional limbo.

Eric's wife Bernie (Andrea Irvine) and daughter Julie (Amy Molloy) welcome the free from divisive strife, diverse life of modern Belfast as an opportunity for a better life. But the ever passionately Republican Eric clings to the past which includes his ingrained passions and prejudices (especially, being British and not Irish, so unfamiliar with black people that he still identifies them with the "N" word). As he tells Bridget (Ronke Adekoluejo), his black, British therapist, "without prejudice we're nothing!"

Of course, a man like Eric is about as likely to talk out his identity confusion with a therapist as he is to give up his refusal to be identified as Irish. So it's obvious from the get-go that Eric's determination to hang on to and defend his heritage have apparently unraveled his mental equilibrium to a point where his presence in Bridget's office is mandated by some higher authority.

That assumption, which proves to be correct, takes us to the play's set-up: The therapy sessions serve as a device that alternates them with scenes playing out these conversations. The first interspersed scene begins amusingly in Eric's home when Eric upon first meeting his infant granddaughter sees not an adorable baby but a dead ringer for the Sinn-Fèin leader Gerry Adams. This delusional vision becomes increasingly absurd. Worse yet, it intensifies to the point where Eric's determination to save his family from upending its heritage, takes another turn and becomes horrific and painful to watch.

What it all adds up to is a play that can't be defined by a simple descriptive tag. Yes, it's a history play, specific to Ireland's years of what amounted to a civil war. Eric Miller's unraveling might well be viewed as a psychological drama, a case history of one man's unresolved post traumatic stress syndrome. It's also a broader political play in that it filters the root causes of terrorism through an ordinary individual whose festering hatred and impregnable political beliefs can result in wildly irrational behavior — and sometimes even acts of terrifying violence.

The original Royal Court and Abbey Theater co-production of David Ireland's tricky, genre defying play, is again helmed by the Royal Court's artistic director, Vicky Featherstone. Her staging concept called for splitting the seating area in half with the stage in between to give the audience an up-close experience. Since the Public's LuEsther Hall was reconfigured the same way for its last few production, it provides the transfer to our shores with a perfect landing.

Scenic and costume designer Lizzie Clachan's bare bones staging (a couple of white leather chairs and a couch for the therapist scenes, and a park bench for a dynamic detour from both Rea's home and Bridget's office) puts the focus on the text and its execution. Except for Andrea Irvine (who was an impressive addition to the Irish Rep's production of Our Lady of Sligo), all the cast members are reprising their roles. But this is Eric Miller's story and thus Mr. Rea's show and this staging enables everyone to have a prime seat view of his masterfully expressive face and body language.

Since Eric is the main character and the other characters serve in an ancillary capacity. However, there is one star turn by a character who doesn't arrive on scene until we've seen Eric well into his downward spiral. That's Chris Corrigan as Slim, a more typical gun-toting terrorist who comes from the also demented political spectrum of Loyalist vigilantes.

I'll leave it to readers to see for themselves how all this ends. However, it would take a cockeyed optimist to foresee a happy conclusion.

Though this is hardly a feel good experience, I left LuEsther Hall exhilarated by Rea's subtly nuanced performance but also a bit as if someone had punched me in the stomach — not just by what I witnessed but by the all too clear paralells between the identity crisis that triggers Eric's tragedy and the way the current administration has triggered our own confusion about what it means to be an American today.

Disturbing as it may be, no one interested in provocative new plays and top of the line acting, will want to miss seeing Cyprus Avenue.

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Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland
Directed by Vicky Featherstone
Cast: Ronke Adekoleujo (Bridget), Chris Corrigan (Slim), Andrea Irvine (Bernie), Amy Molloy (Julie), and Stephen Rea (Eric).
Scenic and Costume Design: Lizzie Clachan Lighting Design: Paul Keogan
Sound Design: David McSeveney
Fight Director: Bret Yount
Stage Manager: Lizzie Donaghy
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, without intermission
Public Theater's LuEsther Hall
From 6/02/18; opening 6/25/18; closing 7/29/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at June 21st pres preview

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