QUESTION - what's worse than being a militant Irish Republican with a chip on your shoulder in 1975? Answer being a militant Irish Republican with a chip on your shoulder and shudder discovering you're secretly English.
That's the dilemma faced by young Liam at the heart of Tim McGillicuddy's The Irish Play, a pleasingly jaundiced cultural identity caper that's currently playing at the Irish Arts Center in New York. Staged by the accomplished Hamm & Clov Stage Company, the group has successfully produced over seven new plays within the Irish immigrant community since 2001, and they can add this current production to their list of unqualified successes.
The drama unfolds over one day in 1975, when Cian, an American blow-in who believes he's writing the greatest Irish play ever written, and his wisecracking militant Republican friend Liam meet in their tiny Dublin flat to discuss the new paths that fate has chosen for them.
Cian, we discover, is an idealistic young intellectual who believes in the power of art to transform, but his pal Liam is an aggressive man of action who is (wouldn't you know it?) secretly nursing the soul of a poet. And of course neither young man believes that the other one is doing the right thing.
The shadow of Sean O'Casey falls over the proceedings, but minus all of his heavy-handed symbolism and preaching. And from the beginning the spirited scenes between Cian and Liam, as they alternately confide in and then taunt each other, are the most interesting in the play. Playwright McGillicuddy has a gift for reproducing the sustained irony and surrealism of Irish dialogue, and he employs it here to great effect.
In the role of Liam, Jonathan P. Judge-Russo (an Irish American actor with grandparents from Galway, who in his own life was interested enough to become an Irish citizen himself) is easily the most persuasive member of the cast. Alternating between high idealism and complete exasperation, he genuinely grapples with issues the play skirts around: what do you when confronted by oppression, and what action is the right action?
Although McGillicuddy's play has an Irish context and approaches Irish themes, he's far less interested in the national question than he is in exploring what happens to individuals caught up in history's snare. How much choice do you really have, and how much do you become the choices that you make?
These are interesting questions, served up in a diverting and frequently hilarious manner by a crackling script played by a unified ensemble. (Other highlights include the all too brief appearance by Nora's thoroughly Antrim accented father, played by the flamboyantly enraged Jimmy Kerr).
As the ethereal playwright Cian, actor Zachary Spicer has a profile that's as romantic as his characters aims. A younger, more talented Ethan Hawke type, he consistently outshines his role, bringing real intellectual depth and pathos to what could have been an outline sketch.
As the two men argue hilariously over which of them has the best plan to save Ireland, the two long suffering young women they love appear one by one. First up is the hard-bitten Nora, brought to life with a lovely feistiness by actress Alicia M. Fitzgerald.
Nora has fallen well, who wouldn't? for the lofty talk and otherworldly beauty of her playwright paramour, getting pregnant out of wedlock for her pains. Then comes Suzie, the nervy English girlfriend of the Irish rebel. Played flawlessly by Elizabeth Stephensen, we meet a bottle blond in a short skirt who's the keeper of a terrible secret.
For once the obviously contrived plot points delight rather than distract. McGillicuddy's intention is to entertain, and this he does with very considerable skill.
As an orphan, young Liam has often privately expressed his desire to know more about his birth parents; but when his kind pals take him at his word and hire a detective to find out the truth they all get much more than they bargained for. It falls to his nervous English girlfriend to break the news young Liam was in fact born young William to his English parents, who still refer to him as young Billy.
Watching Liam's face collapse as this dreadful news is broken is comic gold, and actor Judge-Russo gives a flawless performance.
(The Irish Play is playing at the Irish Arts Center, 553 West 51st Street in New York, until June 9).