Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Pride of Parnell Street


By Sebastian Barry. Directed by Jim Culleton. 59E59. (CLOSED)

Sebastian Barry's The Pride of Parnell Street, which began as a monologue for a Stop Violence Against Women Campaign, is told in alternating monologues between Joe (Aidan Kelly) and Janet (Mary Murray). Not all critics are fond of this device, which leaves little room for action, but most critics feel that the acting by Kelly and Murray, as directed by Jim Culleton, more than make up for any faults in the play.

That Sounds Cool A+
(Aaron Riccio) The Pride of Parnell Street comes on a little strong at first, with its thick Dublin accents and glossary of terms, but once past the head of that thick brew--it's an everyman's Guinness--things quickly coalesce into a positively thirst-quenching bit of theater. Sebastian Barry's writing is so strong, so from the heart, that you'll wonder why all plays aren't performed in this sparse, elegiac monologue format. (Faith Healer's a bad example of the form, but if you liked that, you'll love this.) One almost forgets to clap at the end of the show, having long since forgotten that Aidan Kelly and Mary Murray are actors, and not actually Joe, an idling dreamer, and Janet, the woman he loved, married, and drove away. The Pride of Parnell Street is hypnotically honest, at times grotesquely genuine, and above all--in matters of the head, heart, and soul--authentic... The Pride of Parnell Street isn't just the pride of 59E59, or of the First Irish Festival: it's the pride of New York City's theater scene, the first honest-to-God smash of the season. A
(Matt Roberson) In an interview with the Village Voice, Barry said that the birth of his play came after he was asked to write a monologue in support of a Stop Violence Against Women campaign. Knowing that something as highly charged as violence against women would play a significant role in the story's plot, it was easy to imagine a production filled with raised voices, melodramatic rants, and "never again" resolutions. To deal with a world in which the lines between hero and villain are so clear is never easy, with the temptation to cross over into melodrama always present. Barry however makes none of these common mistakes. His work refuses to move at a forced pace, and never takes a step in the well-worn, or obvious, direction. Where Jane is expected to be angry, she's instead tearfully recalling what a good father Joe was, or speaking fondly about the summer days she and the family spent at the beach. Where Joe is supposed to be full of rage and resentment, he is, instead, weeping, telling jokes, admitting faults, and refusing to utter one cross word about the woman who's refused to take him back. Barry also never bores you, or feels content to simply pluck away at your heart strings. Parnell Street, in spite of its candid discussion of violence and pain, is also terribly funny and charming. This quality is just another tool used by Barry to create what has to be one of the most honest, subtle, and intricate explorations of "the relationship" seen on stage in recent memory.

TheaterMania A
(Andy Buck) The play -- presented by Dublin's Fishamble: The New Play Company and helmed by its artistic director, Jim Culleton -- began life as a short monologue for an Amnesty International campaign to stop violence against women. Perhaps because of this, sections of it read like a simple problem play, charting somewhat neatly the domestic violence that explodes in the wake of shattered dreams. But Barry doesn't rest there. The Pride of Parnell Street is not a play that answers every question in its path. Even as truths unravel, mysteries of human nature remain. Indeed, no one familiar with Barry's other plays of memory and regret (such as The Steward of Christendom and Our Lady of Sligo) will be surprised that his journey down Parnell Street and beyond is a heart-wrenching one. Barry's monologue-heavy works would be unremittingly bleak to experience without powerful central performances that bring out the humanity of its unfortunate souls, and Kelly and Murray serve their roles extremely well.

Lighting & Sound America A-
(David Barbour) If The Pride of Parnell Street pulses with some of Barry's finest writing, it also casts a harsh spotlight on his weakness as a dramatist. A novelist of note, he often constructs his plays out of monologues, a strategy that inevitably leaves one impatient for action, conflict, anything like drama. The dueling points of view do provide a certain implied tension, and there are certain passages -- especially Joe's attempt at winning back Janet's attention by quietly placing a gravestone on their child's grave -- that are particularly affecting. But narration isn't drama, and, too often, the play bogs down in lengthy stretches of prose. There's no getting away from the fact that the last half hour, with its unrelieved parade of agonies, is a bit of a trial. This would be a more significant problem if The Pride of Parnell Street wasn't powered by two riveting performances. As Janet, Mary Murray proves to be a quick-change artist of the soul, executing a series of transformations that reveal with devastating precision how the years, and their collateral damage, have had their way with her. Recalling a happy family moment, she glows with an incandescent interior light; a second later, she seems old, haggard, thoroughly used up. When violence strikes, she doesn't raise her voice, but her body trembles from the struggle to maintain her composure. Curled up on a magnificently scrofulous mattress, ravaged by illness, Aidan Kelly's Joe recalls his life as a landslide of sins and misfortunes with blackly comic detachment, his demeanor occasionally shattered by stabs of pain that leave him doubled up. Clearly, the director, Jim Culleton, is a marvel with actors; both Murray and Kelly treat the material with a welcome understatement that only adds to its power.

CurtainUp A-
(Paulanne Simmons) Barry's tremendous gift for writing prose that sounds like poetry deserves much of the credit for the power The Pride of Parnell Street conveys. But there's no doubt that the success of this production owes much to the brilliant and moving acting of Kelly and Murray... The Pride of Parnell Street seems to succeed despite itself. Although it does go on just a tad too long, leaving one with the impression it has several endings before it is finally over, the drama remains compelling through long and circuitous dialogues that could be trying for even the best of audiences. This is a feat that shows strikingly what can be done when a writer, director and actors combine their enormous talent and overcome impossible odds in a real triumph.

New York Post A-
(Frank Scheck) The playwright skillfully delineates his characters' disparate speaking styles, with Janet relating her woes with a vulnerable sensitivity and the coarser, humorous Joe sprinkling his account with pop culture references ranging from John Wayne's "The Shootist" to the songs of Thin Lizzy and Charlie Rich. "The love between a man and a woman, it's private," Janet says. "It happens where you never see it, in rooms." The strength of this frequently moving work is that it delves into the mysteries of such love with poetic insight.

The New York Times B
(Ben Brantley) And as directed by Jim Culleton, Ms. Murray and Mr. Kelly share a gift for sensually summoning the fractured present of people for whom the past seems far more vivid than anything since. Both, in other words, are a pleasure to watch and listen to. Mr. Culleton always keeps them onstage at the same time, so you’re aware of the omnipresence of each in the other’s life. (Mr. Kelly speaks from a sunken hospital bed, as if already in his grave.) Sabine Dargent’s subtly divided set and Mark Galione’s lighting suggest a couple eternally connected and divided, like lovers in a ghost story. Yet despite such fluid performances, “Parnell Street” seems to parse itself as it unfolds. Though it doesn’t speak in clich├ęs, it rarely surprises. Each new chapter in Joe and Janet’s shared stories can be anticipated, and so can the morning-after analysis. When they admit that they haven’t been entirely honest with you, it’s unnecessary; you knew exactly when they were lying, and you probably knew why.

Back Stage B
(Karl Levett) While Barry may be averse to vulgar dramatic conflict, he shines at delivering vulgar everyday dialogue that, despite its humble origins, often rises up and sings. Under the secure direction of Jim Culleton, the talented Kelly and Murray turn this language into authentic arias. Kelly, in the more difficult role, is still the real thing, while Murray as the woebegone wife is able to suffuse Janet with a genuine charm. The impetus for the play would seem to be to explain Joe's battering of the wife he loved, something Joe is unable to do, and it seems to remain a mystery for the playwright as well. This leaves the play without a center, which Barry cloaks with a sentimental finale. In addition, we never glimpse Joe as the likable lover and caring father; we have to take it as a given. Barry instead gives all the warmth and sympathy to Janet. In this marriage war, it's simply no contest.

Time Out New York C-
(Helen Shaw) Where Parnell Street stumbles is in the handoff because, of course, Janet’s husband, Joe (Kelly), also gets to have his say. Barry does subtle point-of-view work—letting the estranged couple’s accounts diverge in tiny ways—and he has a novelist’s control of imagery, using lovely descriptions of water (a factory’s runoff, the peaceful Liffey River) to remind us of his redemptive theme. Twin monologues, though, rarely make a strong enough structure to support an evening. Culleton fails to adequately prop the elements against each other, and while Murray’s work constantly lifts the drama, Kelly—who raged so brilliantly through Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus last year—never quite holds his end up.

The Village Voice D-
(Tom Sellar) Like most of Barry's oeuvre of memory-plays, The Pride of Parnell Street steadily unearths past traumas through fraught speeches in order to explain away underlying psychologies. Barry counters some of this dull gloom with the couple's affectionate recollections of Dublin life, but the production is essentially a literary experience of listening. For most of the narrating, Joe speaks while lying inert in his hospital bed, halfway submerged in a grave; it's an apt metaphor for static monodramas that do not rise to use dialogue, scenes, or the three dimensions of the stage.

Bloomberg News F
(John Simon) Seeing Sebastian Barry’s “The Pride of Parnell Street” at New York’s 59E59 Theaters reminded me of what a slump modern Irish theater is in... Language is paramount in a monologue play, but low-life Dublinese is not a musical one, such as that of Friel’s County Donegal, and is at times even hard to understand. The program glossary contains 53 entries. Nor do the 118 occurrences of the F-word and its derivatives speak to my ears. Aidan Kelly and Mary Murray are gifted actors, but they lack the charisma of, say, a Donal McCann and a Catherine Byrne. Jim Culleton, artistic director of Dublin’s Fishamble Theatre (formerly Pigsback), where the play premiered, does little to overcome the stasis. Neither does the primitive set.

That Sounds Cool A+ 14; A 13; TheaterMania A 13; Lighting & Sound America A- 12; CurtainUp A- 12; New York Post A- 12; The New York Times B 10; Back Stage B 10; TONY C- 6; The Village Voice D- 3; Bloomberg News F 1; TOTAL: 106/11 = 9.64 (B)

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