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A CurtainUp Review
This Lime Tree Bower
By Les Gutman
Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison ! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm'd mine eyes to blindness!
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Whatever may become the standing of the young Irish playwright of the moment, Conor McPherson, vis-à-vis Synge, O'Casey, Friel and the rest, no one will ever accuse him of straying from the great Irish storytelling tradition. Last season, Primary Stages gave him a proper New York introduction with a fine production of his unencumbered monologue, St. Nicholas (CurtainUp's review is linked below). Since then, his most dressed-up storytelling to date, The Weir, has opened on Broadway. In it, he takes the revolutionary step of permitting his characters to converse with one another as a prompt for relating three ghost stories. (Elyse Sommer found it overdressed, per her CurtainUp review linked below). Primary Stages now brings us the more logical intermediate step -- an earlier play in which McPherson tells a story via not one but three monologues. In it, he cautiously tests the dramatic waters: by my count, he includes two entire lines of dialogue.
Suffice it to say, no actor will ever lose weight performing in any of these plays. McPherson's plays are not about action; they are about words: words woven together into stories. This Lime Tree Bower is, more than anything else, a study in the great art of storytelling, Irish-style.
Put three young American men together for an afternoon. They'll find a basketball and take turns putting their best spin on it, aiming to prove they're the best shot. But give three similarly-situated Irishmen an afternoon off, and they'll sit around spinning yarns. Or so it seems.
Director Harris Yulin counters their basic instincts, attempting to invigorate them. As the audience enters the theater, the two brothers, Frank (Thomas Lyons) and Joe (T. R. Knight), five years younger and still in school, are playing darts behind a scrim. But once Ray (Drew McVety), a philosophy professor, finally shows up, they find chairs to their liking and the storytelling monopolizes our attention. A bit of body language from the other two is the only clue they are paying attention.
These are not grand stories, nor are they conveyed grandiloquently. Whereas Elyse Sommer described Brian Cox's performance in St. Nicholas as magnetic, the threesome in Lime Tree are religiously directed away from anything approaching enchantment. And whereas both St. Nicholas and The Weir incorporate elements of the supernatural, This Lime Tree Bower treads in decidedly mundane waters.
The subject matter here is of an extended family: Ray is the boyfriend of Carmel, sister to Joe and Frank. They all live with their widower father, who operates a "chipper" (a fish and chips shop, one of some 46 terms kindly defined in the playbill) at the Irish seaside. Each character has his own story to tell: Joe, of coming-of-age as he extricates himself from the mess the appealing badboy at school gets him into; Frank, on his uneasy foray into the world of crime to help out his debt-laden father; and Ray, of the unsettling effects of too much booze and sex with students on his academic performance, as well as of his convenient if unanticipated involvement in Frank's Robin-Hooding.
There is no basis for quibbling with any of the performances here. These are fine actors whose understated performances are on target, even if they could hardly be called enthralling.
In McPherson's hands, the stories are carefully interlaced and yet each produces its own moral, dropped like a subtle grenade with a long fuse. And this is, it would seem, the intent of the playwright, himself an erstwhile philosophy graduate student at Dublin's University College. There is no glorious authorial voice here; there are no good quotes with which to head up the review.
Lime Tree is plain-spoken and methodical: euphemisms for dull, you may ask? It is a style that will satisfy some greatly, while leaving others nonplused if not somnolent (a euphemism for bored to tears). But as Joe says, "no one comes to the seaside when it's raining, which is weird, because that's when I liked it best."; So be it.
All of this talk about storytelling inspires one more, this one about the origin of the play's title. One summer, Coleridge had William Wordsworth and Charles Lamb as guests at his cottage. On the day they arrived, his wife (accidentally) scalded his foot with boiling milk. When the guests went for a long walk, Coleridge retired to the garden to convalesce, and to write about it. It concludes, "no sound is dissonant which tells of life."
LINKS TO REVIEWS MENTIONED ABOVE
CurtainUp's review of St. Nicholas
CurtainUp's review of The Weir