THE BLOG
10/20/2013 10:17 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2013

First Nighter: When Irish Eyes Aren't Smiling in Sean O'Casey and Maeve Brennan

Charlotte Moore as artistic director and Ciarán O'Reilly as producing director at the Irish Repertory Theatre form one of the most reliable teams in New York City, and if they aren't regularly celebrated, they should be. At various times for the company they've created, either of them could be acting, directing and/or producing--although Moore does much less acting now than she once did.

For this outing, she directs Juno and the Paycock, and he plays the thorough reprobate "Captain" Jack Boyle, who's ascribed those quotation marks because he claims to have sailed the seas but is lying about his adventures. Indeed, the hopeless layabout dissembles about everything else he gets up to with or without his sometimes amusing but strictly loathsome pal Joxer Daly (John Keating).

In their respective directing and acting capacities for the revival of Sean O'Casey's dolorous tale of a disintegrating Dublin family, both Moore and O'Reilly are at the top of their form. So is J. Smith-Cameron, making a radical leap in her career to play a strong but ultimately not unbowed titular Juno to O'Reilly's eponymous paycock. So are all the members of the cast highly effective at what they're about.

As a reminder to those who've forgotten some of the details of O'Casey's classic drama, the setting is the squalid Boyle home. James Noone designs this particular squalor well and includes a wall that revolves for showing off improvements when the Boyles think they've come into money.

While Juno still sometimes succumbs to her alcoholic husband's vestigial charms, she's more often required as the stolid breadwinner to chastise Jack for dodging all prospective work by claiming to have crippling leg pains. Boyle daughter Mary (Mary Mallen) also toils and even looks to have wedding prospects when lawyer Charlie Bentham (James Russell) arrives with the eventually inaccurate news that the benighted unit has an inheritance coming its way. (It serves that serves as the impetus for Jack to borrow money widely on his small impending fortune.) Boyle son Johnny (Ed Malone) hangs around the house in mounting despair as an apparent disaffected IRA activist. He's unemployed due to an arm shattered in an unseen episode having to do with the Irish troubles...

Because O'Casey saw no reason to let the Boyles off the hook in favor of anything like a bright future, his play is not easy to take in. Yes, Jack and Joxer provide laughs in earlier sequences by way of their incorrigible blarney, but that's before the damage Jack is doing to his wife and children through sheer obstinacy and laziness is revealed--as well as before Joxer's devious nature comes to light.

Nevertheless, despite O'Casey's pessimism in Juno and the Paycock, the play was an instant success when it bowed at the Abbey Theatre in 1924. Its keen--not to say keening--look at Ireland's impoverished state of affairs through the close-up glimpse of the Boyles after years of Anglo-Irish trouble held the mirror up to audiences that couldn't turn away from the truths reflected.

American audiences obviously can't and won't have the same response today, but the play's power as the portrait of a woman trying to steady a household against daunting odds still holds, especially with Smith-Cameron and cast--including those playing brief parts as welcome or unwelcome visitors (David O'Hara, Terry Donnelly, Fiana Toibin, among them)--making such strong impressions.

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Irish actor Eamon Morrissey, who made his 1966 Broadway debut in Philadelphia, Here I Come!, discovered during that stay that he was raised in the same Dublin suburb house where New Yorker writer Maeve Brennan had been brought up.

He explains in Maeve's House, at the Irish Arts Center, that he was riding the subway from Brooklyn, where he was staying while appearing in Brian Friel's play, when he realized he recognized details too specific to be coincidental from the description in the Brennan story he was reading. Immediately, he not only sought out more Brennan stories but sought her out, too.

Though he only met the small, sophisticated redhead once--over tea--he became fascinated with her. The fascination has resulted in this 70-minute tribute, initially commissioned by the above-mentioned and seemingly always adventurous Abbey Theatre. In the one-man, he not only recites passages from Brennan's stories, all of them written in the exquisite style that used to be labeled "a New Yorker short story," but also delivers excerpts from many of the "Talk of the Town" pieces she wrote over years as "The Long-Winded Lady."

Using only a three-section bench, a chair and a stylized Manhattan skyline backdrop, Morrissey includes Brennan biographical material that follows her leaving Ranelagh, Dublin 6 with her diplomat father for Washington, D. C., then to Manhattan, Harper's Bazaar and The New Yorker.

He notes that Brennan (1917-1993) lived a relatively unhappy life. The depth of her depression--marked by alcoholism about which her New Yorker colleagues were increasingly concerned--is apparent in the stories she set in her and Morrissey's 48 Cheerfield Avenue with its three-step-down kitchen and squeaking staircase railing. Brennan locates no cheer in these depictions of loveless marriages and communications not so much missed as avoided.

By Morrissey's finish, he's revived interest in a writer about whom few speak nowadays. It's a good thing. He's also told a touching, melancholy tale. Though it isn't necessarily cheering either, it's definitely another good thing.

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