This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
Conor McPherson has not been served well by Los Angeles. The Irish playwright is one the finest dramatists working today, but Angelinos have had few opportunities to experience this.
Thing started well about eight years ago, when McPherson's 1997 play, St. Nicholas, enjoyed a short run at the Matrix Theater on Melrose Avenue. This one-person play, about a bitter drama critic who starts hanging around with vampires, is a small gem—and it was performed here in LA by British actor Brian Cox, the man who originated the role in Dublin.
McPherson's next play was The Weir, a five-person work that takes place in an Irish pub. A subtle and moving drama, the play won great acclaim in England and in New York. It eventually made it's way to Los Angeles, but not with the original Irish cast. Here at the Geffen Playhouse, it was done with American actors, including John Mahoney (from TV's Frasier) all trying to do Irish accents.
It was, to put it politely, an unfortunate production. It rendered the play and McPherson's writing as totally unremarkable. Since then, the playwright's work (despite further successes in London and New York) has been for the most part ignored by companies here in LA.
Luckily, the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in West Los Angeles is currently staging a revival of McPherson's 1995 play, This Lime Tree Bower.
The title comes from a Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem, which like the play, is about friends and the humdrum of everyday life. As with most of McPherson's writing, it is steeped in the Irish tradition of storytelling. This Lime Tree Bower is nothing more than long yarn. Whereas St. Nicholas and other early plays were monologues, This Lime Tree Bower is a three-person work; less a true "play" and more like a fugue: three monologues lyrically intertwined.
Three blokes, Frank, Ray and Joe simply tell you their versions about what happened during the course of two days when small events conspired to change each of their lives.
That's it. No subtext, no message, just a long yarn. Reading the play, it has the feel of three short novellas; but seeing the play makes McPherson's words come alive. At the Odyssey, director Alan Miller wisely stages the action, less like a dramatic performance and more like a chance encounter. It's as if the audience just happens to share a table with these three men at a bar. The actors crack open beers, introduce themselves to the crowd and frequently talk over one another. This gives the show a natural feel and allows the actors to establish a relaxed camaraderie.
The only problem is: bad Irish accents. This is what helped sink the Geffen's production of The Weir and once again it mars this staging. David Agranov (as Frank) fares best, but the other actors really struggle. Since the creative team has tweaked the text to include references to the LA Times and Earnest & Julio Gallo wine—why didn't they also just have the play spoken in plain American English. Sure, the actors would be talking about events in Ireland, but if they were making the characters believable, it wouldn't matter.
Luckily, This Lime Tree Bower, because of its informal structure weathers the bad accents; and it's still possible for the play to resonate—even during the production's worst moments. Conor McPherson is a writer worth knowing about. Experiencing this local production is nothing like tasting the real thing fresh from the tap; but enough of the flavor is present to make one appreciate what all the fuss is about.
Conor McPherson's This Lime Tree Bower runs through November 11 at the Odyssey Theatre.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Photo (Sean Wing, Cyrus Alexander and David Agranov, left to right): Ron Sossi