Hailed by The New York Times as the show that burns brighter than any other this theater season, the Irish Repertory Theatre’s new production of "The Emperor Jones" is the talk of the town this week.

Originally written in 1920 by Irish American playwright Eugene O’Neill, the play was recently described as practically un-performable by the New York Times’ chief theatre critic Ben Brantley.

America has long passed the point where a straightforward production of "The Emperor Jones", with a black man delivering O’Neill’s dialectical speeches as written, could be other than embarrassing,” Brantley sniffed in a recent article.

But then he stopped by the Irish Rep’s spirited new production at its West 22nd Street location and was blown away.

Directed by Ciaran O’Reilly, the production depends heavily on O’Neill’s original stage directions, and in the process it has made a convert of the notoriously exacting Times critic.

On Monday Brantley enthused, “The fallen emperor has been returned to glory. In the play that bears his name, an ember of real magnificence has been uncovered and fanned, gently and artfully, into a blazing flame.”

It’s a rare sight to see the Times theater critic rhapsodize in public about any New York production, so the Irish Rep’s achievement is considerable. By Tuesday tickets to the show were becoming hard to find as the entire run was selling out, based on the strength of Brantley’s enthusiasm for it.

“The Times review has really helped sell tickets,” O’Reilly told the Irish Voice. “Our switchboard lit up after it was published and we’re trying to make sure that everyone who wants to see it can.

“As for talk about a transfer to Broadway, those are very costly operations and artistic director Charlotte Moore and myself have enough experience to wait and see.”

Asked why he chose to tackle a challenging early play by the modern master who is known more for his epic realist dramas, O’Reilly said that the play’s expressionistic structure was a bit of a holiday from Irish theatrical fare.

“I’ve been fascinated by this play for years and I felt like I was at the point where I could do it justice. There’s been a lot of nonsense written about it in the last few decades, and I wanted to just produce it the way O’Neill originally intended. In rehearsal whenever we had a question we just returned to his original stage directions. That was our guide all along.”

The Irish Rep’s show “surprised and rattled” Brantley, who claimed that it had turned out to be the “perfect Halloween entertainment for grownups.”

It will certainly help the Irish Rep’s bottom line – the company is now $1 million away from the approximately $4 million total they need to purchase their theater. 

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