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Katie Tumelty as Frances and Tara-Lynne O’Neill as Loretta in Fly Me to the Moon.

New Marie Jones play “Fly Me to the Moon” triumphant on a New York stage

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Katie Tumelty as Frances and Tara-Lynne O’Neill as Loretta in Fly Me to the Moon.

It's about time we all took stock of playwright Marie Jones’ achievements. She’s one of the few Irish playwrights whose works have consistently been staged back to back on Broadway and New York City’s main stages over the past three decades.

Audiences adore her bitingly funny scripts because they come straight from the lived experience of her instantly recognizable subjects – the North’s working class, and usually Belfast’s.

In particular no other playwright in recent years, with the exception of Geraldine Hughes, has put the scalding wit and wisdom of Belfast’s women on a New York stage as successfully as Jones does. Her characters leap to life with all the immense inner spirit and humor of the people of her home city.

So it’s a pleasure to see that the skills that made Jones famous are fully evident in her new play Fly Me to the Moon, which is being staged at the 59East59 Theatre as part of the 1st Irish Theater Festival.

Jones introduces to community care workers Francis and Loretta who look after 84-year-old Davy, a lonely old man who lives for his Frank Sinatra records and his modest weekly bet on the horses.

But when Davy dies unexpectedly the two cash strapped ladies are faced with an awful choice, will they cash in his pension and collect his unexpected race winnings? How far are they prepared to go for a little windfall that apparently hurts no one?

It’s a fun premise, and it’s fun to watch these two thoroughly decent women agonize and interrogate each other over their unexpected good fortune, which has come to them in the most unfortunate manner.

In other hands this play would probably be a farce, with the playwright piling on the unforeseen consequences for their dubious if well-intentioned decision. But Jones knows the community she is writing about intimately, and she mines the play’s premise to tell hard truths about hard times. While we’re laughing she pulls the rug from under us.

“He never won any more than a couple a quid, but that was his life…all he had…his newspaper, the horses, memories of singing along with Frank Sinatra and a life of misery… he’s better off dead in my opinion.”

For all its surface humor, and there is more than enough to make this a hilarious night out, Fly Me to the Moon tells desperately sad truths about difficult lives.

As Loretta actress Tara Lynne O’Neill has a lovely sulky presence that looks worn down by the endless drudgery of her home life, and Katie Tumelty as Francis is a whirlwind of regret and opportunism that you cannot take your eyes off. We laugh at these ladies but we come to care for them too. It would be impossible not to, knowing how hard they work for the pittance they’re paid.

The paranoia that sets in as the women start imagining the consequences for their actions is the most telling and hilarious part of the play. In their hearts neither Francis nor Loretta believe they deserve to do well, anywhere, ever. They just don’t possess the sense of entitlement that the well off do. That’s why they start anticipating their comeuppance before it even arrives.

“For me as a writer it reflects my community now,” Jones tells the Irish Voice. “These two women are community care workers, which means they are the lowest paid, but they still have amazing heart and dignity.

“The opportunity they encounter forces them to do something that goes against their whole grain and that spirals out of control. Because they are powerless people in their daily lives they actually don’t know what to do.”

The idea of the play came to Jones from someone who she knew who actually did what the women in the play do. The consequences weren’t the same, but her crisis of conscience was.

“What have I just done, she asked herself,” Jones says. “Her conscience scalded her. What she decided was just to get rid of the cash as soon she could. I remember vividly deciding that this was a story to do. We started out with just the title and the idea and it took off from there.”

It’s the strongest new play, and the funniest, I have seen yet in the 1st Irish Theatre Festival. This is one flight you don’t want to miss.

For tickets call 212-279-4200.

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