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&quotThe; Troubles" with Contemporary Irish Plays

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

This year, the theater world has once again heaped accolades upon another hollow work by Martin McDonagh. His play The Lieutenant of Inishmore, a broad satire of the Irish Republican Army is sure to garner multiple Tony Award nominations later this month, much like McDonagh's earlier plays The Pillowman and The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore was written years ago, but it only had its UK premiere in 2002 because its topic was considered too politically sensitive. The play mocks the IRA and implies that its members are psychopaths who fund their bombings with drug money. Having been censored, The Lieutenant of Inishmore and its author are being seen as possessing the glow of truth--which is ironic because the play, like most of McDonagh's work, is so utterly false.

Since the recent thaw in Ulster-Irish tensions in Belfast, the play has been deemed politically presentable. To see the play though, which I did recently in its first American production on Broadway, is to realize that as political parody, The Lieutenant of Inishmore is completely toothless. Instead of Strangelove-ian satire, McDonagh has populated a well-structured farce with characters so simplistic and clich--d, that they make the Danish cartoons that stirred up so much controversy last fall, seem almost Swiftian.

If McDonagh's play was feared to anger the Irish Catholics, another new drama has ticked off the Irish Protestants. Gary Mitchell's new work The Force of Change dares to suggest that operatives in the Ulster Defense Association are also affiliated with thugs and criminals. But while McDonagh's play was merely censored, Mitchell's play has caused the playwright to go into hiding after death threats from the UDA. Like The Lieutenant of Inishmore, this controversy has given undue attention to a sub-par work. The Force of Change is a stale interrogation drama--think CSI: Belfast. Mitchell's work is less entertaining than McDonagh's play, but it's at least a more honest piece of writing. The characters are poorly rendered, but at least their models seem to be real human beings--and not rehashes of mobsters and goons from straight-to-video Tarantino knockoffs.

The Force of Change is not helped by the actors on stage in the U.S. premiere of the play at the McCadden Place Theatre in Hollywood. The Northern Irish accents fluctuate wildly between actors, and sometimes between an individual performer's lines. As is usually the case with controversy, the Protestants who have been tormenting Mitchell have only succeeded in giving free publicity to a play that would have been quickly forgotten.

One contemporary Irish playwright whose work hasn't caused any controversy is Conor McPherson. There's no blood on the stage of his anecdotal plays, that's because it's all safely tucked away in the repressed hearts of his characters. McPherson's best play to date, The Weir, was not well served by its Los Angeles Premiere at the Geffen back in 2001. The lucky few who saw Brian Cox in the one-man show St. Nicholas at the Matrix Theatre many years ago, however, did get a taste of just how firmly McPherson's words can grab the ear.

Cox also originated the role of John Plunkett in McPherson's 2003 play Dublin Carol, which is currently being staged in Santa Barbara by the Ensemble Theatre Company. This revival stars Tom Dugan as John Plunkett. The local actor can't quite get his tongue around all of McPherson's Dublin small talk, but he burrows deep enough into the character to make John Plunkett come alive.

The modest production has been directed with care by Jenny Sullivan. The blocking feels natural and the director evokes the appropriate, wistful tone that McPherson's' Jameson's-saturated drama requires. One wonders though, if the Irish accents should have been jettisoned. Compared to The Force of Change, they weren't bad--but they sounded like actor-y approximations. McPherson's tales feature lonely souls speak with an Irish brogue, but whose emotions are universal. Do Irish plays require Irish accents? It might not work, but it might stir up controversy. If that's what it takes to get people interested in a contemporary Irish play that's not about &quotthe; troubles," so much the better.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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