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An abundance of Irish luck - review of “The Luck of the Irish” at Lincoln Center

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Dashiell Eaves and Amanda Quaid as Joe and Patty Ann Donovan and Eisa Davis and Victor Williams as Lucy and Rex Taylor in Luck of the Irish.
Dashiell Eaves and Amanda Quaid as Joe and Patty Ann Donovan and Eisa Davis
and Victor Williams as Lucy and Rex Taylor in Luck of the Irish.

When Rex and Lucy Taylor, a prosperous African American family, want to buy a desirable house in early 1950s Boston, they have to employ the help of Mr. and Mrs. Donovan, a down on their luck Irish American couple, to purchase the property on their behalf in a process that was referred to as “ghost buying.”

It’s an appropriate term because the consequences come to haunt all the principal characters in Kirsten Greenridge’s utterly absorbing new play, Luck of the Irish, that addresses themes – money, inheritance, and the terrifying generational squabbles that can erupt over them -- that often echo the works of Irish master playwrights like Tom Murphy and Brian Friel.

Racial prejudice means that the Taylors have no chance of buying the desired property themselves. So instead they have to hire their Irish proxies, which results in predictably differing degrees of social success in the all-white neighborhood.

It’s a delicate deception this, one fraught with peril. First to spot the potentially underhand windfall that this transaction could result in is Patty Ann Donovan (Amanda Quaid).

Patty Ann is secretly affronted that she has less money and options than the well to do black couple that is simply paying her for her local clout. Her scalding resentment motivates every action that follows.

Since the Donovans sign the legal papers, and present the purchasing check, they hold the legal title to this leafy property overlooking the harbor. That means to Patty Ann that whatever they have been paid to do the heavy lifting simply wasn’t enough.

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She wants more cash. And since she’s holding the trump cards, she aims to get it.

Patty Ann’s detached and long-suffering husband Joe (Dashiell Eaves) doesn’t share his wife’s icy contempt or her sense of economic injustice (Patty makes it clear she believes that there’s an order to American life that should see her and her husband looking down on the Taylors, not the other way around).

It’s appalling to witness, all of these savage machinations assembling on the neatly tailored lawn of this contested house, and the playwright pulls no punches setting them up.

Joe tells Patty Ann he’s kept the title to the house and so she is content to wait years, decades in fact, to extract the property when the opportunity finally presents itself.

Fifty years later, now old Mrs. Donovan shows up to threaten Hannah (Marsha Stephanie Blake), the Taylor’s granddaughter, with eviction and disinheritance.

To make her point old Mrs. Donovan triumphantly holds up the title to “her” house and insists she will take it back. She justifies this blatant attempt at theft by saying that the Taylors stole her family’s luck, because their presence and their good fortune represented a break in the established social order, an order than should have seen her and her husband on top all these years.

But Greenridge never once loses sight of what animates her characters underneath it all -- cash. Who has it, who doesn’t, who prospers and who falls are all recorded by the playwright with a clear eyed dispassion that marks her out as one of the most interesting writers to have emerged this decade.

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As old Mr. Donovan, actor Robert Hogan is a shuffling mass of conflicting impulses looking around for the last exit to human decency.  Jenny O’Hara plays old Mrs. Donovan with a bone deep conviction that is rattling to witness.

As the younger Mr. Donovan, Dashiell Eaves is an all too transparent mass of tensions and seductions that look like they will never be resolved (and aren’t, in fact).

Frank Harts plays Rich Davis, the only character in this play who can spot a way out of the imprisoning claims of the past with a delicacy and passion that add another layer of complexity to this remarkable work.
But the evening belongs to Eisa Davis, the actress who plays brittle 1950s housewife Lucy Taylor. Davis knows that an abyss has opened on her manicured lawn and each day she peers into it, and each day she prevents herself and her family from falling in. The effort is so heroic that this subtle and cerebral play still manages to hit you like a blow to the chest.

Luck of the Irish runs until March 10. Visit www.lct.org for tickets and showtimes.

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