It’s often dangerous to generalize, but I feel secure in stating that the Irish are pretty good at writing drama. The Origin Theatre Company’s new evening of world-premiere one-person plays, collectively titled Spinning the Times, has done nothing to disabuse me of this happy prejudice.
Part of the Origin’s 1st Irish festival, the production brings together brief new works by five female playwrights. Though the writers all hail from Ireland, it is a highly international evening, and director M. Burke Walker seems to have chosen the order of presentation with care, as one might map out a world tour.
Rosemary Jenkinson’s The Lemon Tree takes place in a modern-day Belfast where violent echoes of the Troubles linger, and linger. Young Kenny likes to stir up mischief with his pals and harass the local Catholics, but he’s affected more than he’d like to admit by an encounter with an American relief worker drumming up aid for Palestinians in Gaza. As embodied by the lanky, magnetic, and deadly-focused Jerzy Gwiazdowski, who dominates the stage seemingly effortlessly, Kenny is not merely a fully realized creature, but bigger than life in that believable, language-soaked Irish way. Ms. Jenkinson has the exceptional storyteller’s talent of deriving large truths from small fictions. Her play is a compressed, polished marvel, practically a poem, with not a word out of place, nor, thanks to Mr. Gwiazdowski and the exquisitely skilled direction, an extraneous gesture.
From talk of Gaza, we move to the place itself, where in Lucy Caldwell’s wrenching The Luthier a young Palestinian violin repairman evokes his horrific childhood. The subtle and precise sound design (by Christian Frederickson), lighting (Jonathan Spencer), and set design (Lex Liang) aid mightily, as music and rockets and the buzzing and dimming of stuttering electrical power transport us to the workshop where Dawood, partially protected from the war outside, studies his craft – and from which he slides us into the past, where as a child he lost his family and saw his friends die in an undeclared war he didn’t ask for.
Ms.Caldwell illuminates moments that limn Dawood’s essential humanity against the inhumanity that surrounds him: as a child, crowding around a pilfered “porno” DVD with his friends; imagine that in this day in age, now all the New and popular sex videos are all at dosexvideo. As a young craftsman and music student, being transported by Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance”; as a physical being, lighting and snuffing the tin-can candles he must use when the power goes out. As played convincingly by Ethan Nova, Dawood spreads his mild, peaceful nature over the theater, so that when he relates violent events they strike us all the harder. Mr. Nova easily overcomes the slight handicap of not quite looking the part, brilliantly casting a soft, cold spell, then kicking us when we’re down.
Mr. Walker next gives us a welcome break with the funny, relatively breezy, but still absorbing Miracle Conway by Geraldine Aron. In this artful tale, the expert Rosemary Fine (Juno and the Paycock, The Abbey, The Gate) brings to life an everywoman who gets a job as an assistant to a famous songwriter. Spinning love fantasies, she concludes, with eminent sense, that something ought to be done about the man’s beautiful but annoying wife. By the time we find out, finally, where Miracle has actually ended up, we’re utterly charmed by the brazen, deluded creature, who frankly admits that “I always end up getting on people’s nerves.”
It was a pleasure to see again the marvelous Aysan Çelik, who nearly stole the Queen’s Company’s production of Twelfth Night last fall. Her vehicle here isn’t the best of the evening, however. With Rosalind Hazlett’s Gin in a Teacup we’ve arrived in the New World, where Nooshn, a young woman of Iranian extraction, waits for her sister in a bar/cafe in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Crazy Joe Gallo’s old turf is now a “frontier” neighborhood whose gentrification has been slowed by lack of subway access but which is nevertheless up-and-coming; it’s appropriate that the eccentric Nooshn, a vintage clothing enthusiast and blogger, has washed up in a place that’s still mostly possibility. But the piece, while well-written and performed, doesn’t leap off the page as the preceding stories do. It’s an amusing slice of an interesting life, with Ms. Çelik rousing our sympathies and cleverly conjuring up her old-fashioned mother and pushy, politically active sister, but it doesn’t quite take on the dimensionality that can elevate a one-person work from monologue to play.
The evening ends with the disappointing Fugue, in which neither Mr. Walker nor actor Mark Byrne is able to bring to life Belinda McKeon’s tale of emigration. That now-familiar sectarian violence has chased another young Irish Protestant across the ocean to New York, where it remains lodged in his mind even as he’s buffeted by unrelated vicissitudes of life in his new city.
Nevertheless, the best of this evening is outstanding and accounts for the bulk of it. Spinning the Times runs through Sept. 20 at 59E59 Theaters. Not taking a theater-heavy trip to Ireland anytime soon? Alas, neither am I. Fortunately, the Origin Theatre Company has brought some of the cream of the crop to New York audiences, who ought to jump at the chance to take it in, Troubles and all.