|Jenny Powers and James Barbour in a scene from Donnybrook!|
Donnybrook!, the rarely performed 1961 chestnut by Johnny Burke and Robert E. McEnroe, is a diverting romp based on the beloved John Ford film The Quiet Man.
Set in the 1950s, at the top of the play we are warned (by a cassock wearing parish priest, naturally) that what follows could easily have taken place 1,000 years earlier, because this is land that time forgot.
That's your clue to throw away your vexing memories of the Celtic Tiger, or Bishop Eamon Casey or the life and career of Mary Robinson. They'll be no good to you here at all, at all.
Donnybrook, it turns out, is closer to Homer than James Joyce. Set in the town of Inishfree (courtesy of an outstanding, highly malleable set design by James Noone) the boozy, brawling locals break into boisterous performances of “The Wild Colonial Boy” given just a sniff of whiskey. It's that kind of town.
The lasses are comely and the lads are bantams on the prowl. Stereotypes are its lifeblood.
What the Rep's production has going for it is its sleight of hand. Director Charlotte Moore keeps the cast on their toes and the action moving forward at a lively canter.
She is aided in her efforts by the good humored, firing on all cylinders female lead Jenny Powers, who is what they used to call a knockout. From her first appearance, which instantly anchors the proceedings, Powers becomes one of the two pillars of this always entertaining production.
The other pillar, if I can call her that, is Kathy Fitzgerald, who turns in one of the most astute comic performances I have ever seen on the Rep stage.
Fitzgerald plays the widow Kathy Kerry, a woman who realizes now that her husband has passed that she has some basic appetites that have gone unattended for entirely too long.
Fitzgerald is simply sensational in the role of this big chested bombshell looking for a new man to make her own. When she sings of her late husband in “Sad Was the Day” you can already see that she's over it. Now she's in pursuit of a little affection, and Fitzgerald makes comedy gold of her character’s predicaments.
If you accept (and in this show you really don't have a choice) that the best kind of rural entertainment is a good old fashioned, knock-down fight, then you'll be helplessly beguiled by this very silly show. But if you enjoy clever lyrics and memorable songs you'll be out of luck.
The truth is Donnybrook's best efforts fade even as they're sung, and you'll be hard pressed to remember one line of it.
As Sean Enright, the returned Yank who yearns for a little peace and quiet, and maybe a local lass to woo, James Barbour gives a barnstormer performance. The problem is that emotional nuance (and to be honest, his character) can get lost amid all that blaring baritone.
For that reason the romance that blossoms between Powers and Barbour seems heavily tilted in one direction. It's also the reason why his 11 o'clock number, “The Loveable Irish,” flies past without a hint of its original irony or humor.
A strong word in favor of the costume design is almost always a dangerous sign, but go ahead and award the Lucille Lortel award to Linda Fisher and Leon Dobkowski. Their designs are so masterfully created that the actors who fill them have no choice but to become their characters. The design of this show is one of the best I've seen off Broadway in years.
Wisely, Donnybrook! makes no pretense at being anything other than light hearted entertainment, and in this it succeeds to broadly uneven effect.
The performance of Samuel Cohen as the doubtful matchmaker is worth the ticket price alone. Paired up with Fitzgerald, the two make real magic and lift this often earthbound production to the heights it deserves to attain.
Donnybrook! is now playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. For tickets call 212-255-0270 or visit www.irishrep.org.
Review by Cahir O'Doherty