THE BLOG
07/28/2016 11:05 am ET Updated Jul 29, 2017

First Nighter: Owen McCafferty's Mutedly Noisy "Quietly"

Two Irishman walk into a bar and engage the bartender. But whoa, they're not leading up to a punchline, although a literal punch isn't out of the question.

In Owen McCafferty's terse, tense Quietly--direct from the Abbey Theatre and now at the Irish Repertory Theatre--beer drinkers Jimmy (Patrick O'Kane) and Ian (Declan Conlon) are after something entirely else. They're after confronting and possibly resolving an old conflict, all the while Polish bartender Robert (Robert Zawadzki) repeatedly works the handy tap and/or watches a football (soccer) game on a suspended telly.

(Incidentally, Robert may be Polish, but no Polish jokes surface, either. All that surfaces is Robert's resentment of living in Belfast rather than returning to his homeland.)

Reviewer's Dilemma: Explaining the friction between Jimmy and Ian, both 52, might be considered a spoiler for the prize-winning 75-minute piece. Unfortunately, it's necessary. So anyone simply wanting to know whether Quietly is worth seeing--it absolutely is--may want to stop reading now.

For those continuing: In 1974, when Jimmy and Ian were 16, Jimmy's father, along with four other Catholic men were in this same bar as Ian threw a bomb into their midst and caused their deaths. He'd been instructed to do so, because it was feared the men inside were possible IRA members.

Though Jimmy and Ian remain enemies, McCafferty's achievement here is that their underlying desire to overcome the still rampant animosity is constantly implied with genuine sympathy. For obvious reasons, Jimmy is having the most difficulties reaching this solution. For Ian's part, his unrelieved guilt over committing such a crime when he was a naive young man hasn't lifted in the intervening 36 years. (Alyson Cummins's set depicts the rebuilt bar, which looks more modern than bars usually look in plays placed in Irish bars.)

The Quietly suspense and appeal lies in the adversaries' give-and-take as they attempt to come to terms with their shared goal. The ultimate conclusion is another spoiler that definitely will not be revealed here. Only understand that when it transpires, it's undeniably credible. Furthermore, it's not what brings about the final fade. McCafferty has another comment he wants to make on contemporary Belfast malaise. Those age-old troubles just won't subside, he suggests.

Jimmy Fay--whose surname hints he understands a dispute that is not likely unusual in today's Belfast--directs, as O'Kane vivifies Jimmy's barely contained fury and Conlon makes Ian's nagging guilt visible. Before Ian enters and Robert conducts a charged chat with Robert, Zawadzki does well by the bartender's homesickness. Subsequently, he's good about having to remain unobtrusive while Jimmy and Ian wrangle.

Riveting as Quietly is--the title appropriately indicates the tenor of the protagonists' quarrel--it's more like an appetizer than an entrée. In the old days, it would have served as a strong curtain-raiser for the main event. Consequently, as they're exiting, audiences may feel they're hungry for more.