There's a great deal to admire in new Irish playwright Jacqueline McCarrick's debut work "The Mushroom Pickers," now playing in a spirited production at the Gene Frankel Theatre in Manhattan. Widely acclaimed in its London run with a cast that featured Ireland's redoubtable Sinead Cusack (who's currently appearing in both The Cherry Orchard and The Winter's Tale at the Brooklyn Academy of Art) the new play has made its transfer to the New York stage with the help of an all new cast provided by Alloy Theatre, an Irish and American headed company based in Manhattan. McCarrick's compellingly dark and difficult play is steeped in the dialect and lore of Co. Monaghan, alternatively referred to as Kavanagh country (after the gifted Irish lyric poet) and bandit country (after the Republican paramilitaries that hide their weapons in its accommodating hills). One of the play's major strengths is its strong sense of place - the local landscape is presented throughout as both beguiling and dangerous - and McCarrick knows how to sift drama from the tension's and realities of everyday border county life. The Mushroom Pickers tells the story of Laura, an actress who has left her career in London - possibly for good - because her life has unexpectedly changed course. Referring to herself as a "square peg in a round hole," she returns to Monaghan in search of a new beginning, or at least for the chance to catch her breath and dream it all up again. Home for Laura means more time spent in the company of Philip, her scatterbrained father, an outspoken widower who makes a few spare euros working in the local mushroom tunnels, a very far cry from the glamour of Laura's life in London. In the role of Laura, Cork-born actress Maxine Linehan is a once-in-a-decade revelation, displaying the kind of theatrical range that will make her a major star of the theater. In a performance that is never less than pitch perfect, Linehan brings enormous craft to her role, making her character believable and compelling and capturing the audience's sympathy throughout. As the play progresses we also meet Frank McElroy, the slightly sulpherous owner of the local nursery and ardent proponent of the exotic mushroom. Frank, played with a leery watchfulness by Jonathan Tindle, takes a shine to Laura and shares with her his dream of wooing the restaurateurs of Ireland and beyond with the high-end mushrooms that he's cultivating in secret. But this being bandit country, Frank has other secrets too, and so does Laura. Although there's a slightly formulaic quality to the structure of the play, it falters most when McCarrick indulges her fondness for her two elderly characters and their late in life romance. What may have been charming in the London production - the unlikely affair between Phillip and Nancy - becomes an awkward and distracting storyline in the current production. As Phillip, Timothy Roselle speaks in a stage dialect of Irish that is impossible to place, undermining his authenticity and making you wonder why his character has been placed so prominently in the play. To be fair the role is a difficult one, for in Phillip McCarrick has created an all too common stock character - a loveable bigot who can say outrageous things without censure because, gosh, he's so cute. McCarrick is on surer footing when she takes the play to broader and more unsettling realms. The ceasefire, which is still the talk of the town, may have held for several years now, but for the locals in her play that's a pause, not a resolution. Ghosts - and the fear of ghosts - still retain their power to startle people, popping up in places that just happen to be well known to the local paramilitaries. McCarrick's play is unique in that it presents a part of Ireland rarely seen on Irish stages, and the playwright has struggled to present the realities of that region with courage and rare honesty. Alloy Theatre is also to be thanked for bringing this challenging new production to the New York stage for the first time. The Mushroom Pickers is playing at the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, New York until February 28. For tickets call 866-811-4111.

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