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A CurtainUp Review
The Kings Of The Kilburn High Road
David Lohrey
We are all here, and we are going nowhere.
Just what the difference is between waiting for a bus and waiting for Godot has never been obvious to me. Why one person is a bum while the next do-nothing is a metaphysician has never quite made sense. In any case, Samuel Beckett's wonderful play seems at once to go nowhere while pointing in the direction of the eternal, while Jimmy Murphy's new play goes everywhere while pointing in the direction of the local pub. On the surface, at least, these two Irishmen cover familiar and, by now, common ground. So why is it that one play embraces the world, while the other seems only to be about a small group of people in it?

The play is never dull. Playwright Murphy is a wordsmith in the best sense of the word. The play opens with a bang and closes with a bigger one. It is well paced, and well directed by Neal Jones. All of the ingredients for a significant play are here, and yet when I walked away from the theatre I felt that I had witnessed a mere anecdote. Murphy has an acute ear for dialogue, and as spoken by these marvelous actors from Ireland, it is a real treat to hear them. But after eavesdropping, as it were, on their conversations, after hearing their drunken revelry, their bawdy celebration, and their sad stories, it was a pleasure to get away. Most disappointing of all, I didn't have a sense that there was much to take away with me.

The play opens in an English pub, following the wake of the best friend of the assembled. They've come to get loaded, and proceed to do just that. There is much talk, some jolly, much profane, but for the most part it is an occasion for sadness. Jap Kavanagh (Sean Lawlor) is much put out. He is at once the life of the party and its death. Quick to take offense, he has the classic personality of a drunk. He wants everybody to feel sorry for him, but he feels nothing for others. Into the mix come Shay Mulligan (Brendan Conroy), Maurteen Rodgers (Eamonn Hunt) and Git Miller (Noel O'Donovan). They all came over to England years ago to make their fortunes, but along with the deceased never managed to put much of a life together. Only Joe Mullen (Frank O'Sullivan), who has missed the wake, made a success by setting up his own construction business. He arrives later with enough cash to drown his friends in whiskey.

The play belongs to Jap, but because he is such an unattractive character, one is reluctant to see him as its center. The playwright deserves praise for daring to be pessimistic, but in addition to this he asks the audience to feel for a most unsympathetic character, one who is at once self-destructive, and at the same time contemptuous of those who have found the will to live. He is a negative force. Jap, played forcefully by Mr. Lawlor, seems bent on following his deceased friend to an early death. At first, one wants to save him, or at least hopes he will save himself, but by the time he has shown all sides of his personality we figure the world will be a better place without him.

The equally dynamic Joe Mullen finally shows up, but he is no Godot. A provider of libations, and the instigator of a little truth telling session, Mullen gets the real story of how their friend died from a reluctant Git, the "accident's" only eye-witness. With Jap howling denials, Git tells the tale of how their friend, abandoned by his true love and unable to adjust to a life cut off from his loved ones, finally decided to throw in the towel. Noel O'Donovan does a marvelous job with this long monologue, prompted every inch of the way by O'Sullivan who carries masculine sensitivity well. Again, the performances are powerful and memorable.

The play has so many of the elements we've come to associate with the best Irish writers. One can't watch for long without thinking of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, and any number of great plays, old and new. It is enough to make one wonder how hard the Irish playwrights have to work. It seems all you have to do is put five Irishmen in a pub, bring up death, lost love, or motherhood, and you have yourself a decent play. But of course that's nonsense, as can be seen here, where so many of the elements are present, but the pieces don't add up to a plausible or meaningful whole.

Ben Hennessy's set is realistic enough to make the audience thirsty, while the director's pacing keeps the increasingly sad antics of this drunken lot moving along. The play includes so much humor and human sadness. What it seems to lack is the courage to admit when enough is enough.

Written by Jimmy Murphy.
Director: Jim Nolan.

Cast: Brendan Conroy, Eamonn Hunt, Sean Lawlor, Noel O'Donovan, Frank O'Sullivan.
Set Design: Ben Hennessy.
Costume Design: Mona Manahan.
Lighting Design: Jim Daly.
Running Time: 2 hours with one 20-minute intermission
The Irish Arts Center, 553 West 51St Street (at 11th), New York (212) 206-1515.
Opens 3/17/2001. Open run. Wednesday - Sunday at 8pm; Sun. at 3pm.
Reviewed by David Lohrey based on performance of 3/17/02.
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