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A CurtainUp Review
God Hates the Irish:
The Ballad of Armless Johnny

by Les Gutman

If heaven's not like Ireland,
there's no fucking way I'll go.

Bill Thompson
Bill Thompson
(Photo: Sandra Coudert)
Playwright Sean Cunningham made a splash with back-to-back spoofs of Sherlock Holmes in the Fringe Festival in 2002 and 2003. Emboldened, he now offers a similar if considerably raunchier play with music, based on a piece he wrote and had presented at Yale. To make certain we don't somehow miss its aspirations, promotional materials urge that it is "a comedy about things one shouldn't laugh at," a "satirical farce [that] has something to offend just about everyone" and "one step further" than Urinetown and Avenue Q.

All of this banner-waving may serve as a red flag not only for those who are not South Park savvy (like the older couple sitting in front of me who could barely wait for the intermission to escape, horrified), but also for those who simply don't enjoy a show that's pushing way too hard to engineer its gross-out jokes. It's unfortunate. Cunningham seems conflicted between writing a play with a very funny premise and an Irish Music Hall gestalt, on the one hand, and a naughty revue about bodily functions and disfunctions.

The tale of Armless Johnny (William Thompson) is rife with potential. His mother (Lisa Altomare) is hanged for assisting in the suicide of his one-armed father (James A. Stephens) (one-armed men not being able to tie a noose). Prevented by his own physical predicament from cutting down his dead parents' corpses, and fed up with the way Ireland treats him in general anyway, Johnny sets out for the gold-paved streets of America. His sense of direction is not that good, so he ends up, first, in England (where inbreeding has left the royals without knees, among other shortcomings), and subsequently (even more off course) in Ethiopia. I'd like to tell you he lives happily ever after, but perhaps God does indeed hate the Irish.

The story is obfuscated by dialogue and songs about things like female masturbation, castration (yes, the contents of the tupperware container in the picture is what you think it is), cunnilingus (didn't Hair break this taboo in 1968?), and the smell of urine on an Ethiopian woman suffering from a uterine fistula whose newborn was eaten by a hyena (admittedly sui generis). In the name of satire, Cunningham diligently sends up one stereotype after another -- though his enterprise finds itself merely in a "been-there, done-that" shadow that stretches currently from certain Broadway theaters best left unmentioned by name. The product is a sophomoric (I tried to find another word to describe it but this kept presenting itself as the most apt) mess with hints of splendid comedy.

None of what's wrong here is the fault of the show's game cast or the spirited direction of Will Frears. In fact, Thompson's performance is good enough that a visit can almost be justified notwithstanding the attendant faults. He is thoroughly entertaining, and endearing as well, and he's a not-half-bad Irish tenor to boot. Also especially noteworthy are Anna Camp, in a variety of roles, and Ms. Altomare, whose rendition of "Just Because I'm Dead" is also particularly enjoyable.

Michael Friedman has provided very well-suited music to Mr. Cunningham's lyrics. The show's design elements are all in keeping with the material; Camille Benda's costumes being the most notable.

God Hates the Irish: The Ballad of Armless Johnny
by Sean Cunningham
Music by Michael Friedman
Directed by Will Frears
with Lisa Altomare, Remy Auberjonois, Anne Bobby, Anna Camp, James A. Stephens and William Thompson
Set Design: Robin Vest
Lighting Design: Matt Richards
Costume Design: Camille Benda
Sound Design: Phillip Peglow
Choreography: Jim Augustine
Running time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place (west of 7th AV)
Telephone: (212) 868-4444
WED-SAT @8, SAT - SUN @3; $37.50
Opening March 31, 2005, closing April 24, 2005
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 3/26/05 performance
Musical Numbers
Act I

"Ireland Must Be Heaven"/Johnny and Company
"The Things I'll Do For You"/Officers Victoria and Russell"
"I Enjoy Drinking"/Priest, Johnny, Serving Wench
"Inbreeding"/Lady Brady and Lord Ford
"America"/Officers Victoria and Russell, Johnny
"Let Me Hear a Clap"/Fairy Godmother, Johnny and Company

Act II

"Hold On"/Johnny and Company
"How Good It Is To Be"/Johnny and Feather
"Things Fall Apart"/Queen Bean
"Just Because I'm Dead"/Mum
"A Good Man Is Nonexistent"/Feather
"America Could Be Worse"/The American and Backup
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