First Nighter: Donal O'Kelly's Exciting 'Little Thing, Big Thing,' Alan Hruska's Patience-Trying 'Laugh It Up, Stare It Down'

A thriller about corruption in Ireland and Nigeria involving a large cast of characters isn't the sort of thing you'd expect to turn up as the 80-minute two-hander Little Thing, Big Thing. You'd think it's something Martin Scorsese would put together for the big screen with the likes of Robert DeNiro, Brad Pitt and Mark Wahlberg leading the sinister way.

Nevertheless, a strenuous exercise for two is precisely what Donal O'Kelly has written for himself and Sorcha Fox to work out on -- as directed with astutely controlled frenzy by Jim Culleton -- in the visually spare Fishamble: The New Play Company production at 59E59.

It may be a matter of modesty that in the program's cast list O'Kelly is cited only as Larry, and Fox only as Martha. Ha! That's merely the start of what O'Kelly has called on them to do when smalltime crook and parolee Larry O'Donnell is strong-armed into purloining a statue of the Madonna at a distant church. He goes through with it but finds himself caught up in a vastly larger adventure alongside Martha McCann, a nun who caught him in the act of the Madonna theft. Note that this development is merely one of O'Kelly's little things that becomes a big thing.

Calling the playwright-actor cynical about his view of how oil-money greed can lead to dire consequences for the little people but not the big people just begins to suggest the drama's somber tone. By the final fadeout it's far more devastating than that. No need, however, to go into the ins and outs of a convoluted plot in which prominent elements include: a high level Nigerian security officer, a man called Henry Barr who's trying to get to the bottom of his brother's disappearance, a worrisome entity called the Scarab Oil Company, and an incriminating photograph.

With John Comiskey's set requiring only two chairs and an eight-foot-or-so-high half circle of prison-like wire, O'Kelly and Fox switch from one character to another with lightning speed throughout the lickety-split proceedings. They return with equal lightning speed to Larry and Martha. On the varying accents and modulations they're whizzes.

Yet, with actors O'Kelly and Fox handily distinguishing themselves, playwright O'Kelly is still asking a lot of them -- as well as of the audience. There are times when the quick changes (never with the aid of costume additions or subtractions) can be confusing. Spectators must pay close attention to precisely what's going on or run the risk of losing the thread. Even if they're consistently on their mental toes, they might miss some of the more intriguing nuances.

Nevertheless, at a time when too many playwrights cater to audiences' lack of honed concentration skills, it's a pleasure to encounter one who flatters patrons by expecting them to have the wherewithal for absorbing what's put before them.

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Joe (Jayce Bartok) and Cleo (Katya Campbell) meet not particularly cute in Alan Hruska's Laugh It Up, Stare It Down at the Cherry Lane as a Red Horse Productions production having nothing to do with the Cherry Lane Alternative.

Joe stops Cleo on a college town street corner as she's on her way to meet someone she's been seeing who's never heard of again. Instead, the next scene of the short three-act-four-scenes-each-act romantic comedy (or is it?) has Joe and Cleo on a date at a restaurant where the menus are blank and filet of sole is the only thing served by a nonchalant waitress (Amy Hargreaves).

The following scenes track Joe and Cleo through 25 years of a marriage during which they frequently speak to each other in four- or five-word sentences so arch they could easily support one of Donald Trump's taller towers. They do so on a nicely economic Kevin Judge set backed by a high wall of different windows (cleverly lighted by Matthew J. Fick). Several of the windows feature arched panes, "panes" perhaps being a pun for the pains inflicted by a script supposedly concerning the survival instincts required by romantic love and subsequent marital bonding.

A harangued reviewer must bluntly report that the clipped and utterly unbelievable Laugh It Up, Stare It Down itself demands survival instincts. There are few laughs, though there definitely is much staring in disbelief as Joe and Cleo weather a hospital stay where newborn son Harry is misplaced by a nurse (Hargreaves again); as Joe and Cleo slog through Joe's infidelity with good friend Dorothy (yup, Hargreaves) who's married to good friend Stephen (Maury Ginsberg): as Joe and Cleo wrangle with a burglar (Ginsburg again) wielding a gun that fires blanks; and as Joe and Cleo encounter a Venetian gallery-owner calling himself Arturo (yup, Ginsburg) and having his little joke.

An extravagant three-layered square chandelier is suspended over the stage and is lowered a couple of feet between each scene. There will be no spoiler here about what the outsized fixture in used as when it drops so low to the stage that the Laugh It Up, Stare It Down actors are able to leap onto it. What happens then isn't the least shred believable, but perhaps the subsequent action can be explained, if not forgiven, for its possibly serving as Hruska's notion of a marriage metaphor.

Hargreaves and Ginsberg bring some punch to the four characters they each take on, but Bartok and Campbell, bless them, are too defeated by the relentlessly bludgeoning lines to emerge in any way victorious. Chris Eigeman directed the four with commendable fortitude.