The Irish theater has thrived on its characters’ eccentricity, sometimes based on outlandish individuality, sometimes on mere benightedness. Yeats was the chief exception; other playwrights mostly followed this proven recipe.
Otherwise put, whereas in sophisticated comedy protagonists are smarter than the rest, in typical Irish comedy they are more conniving, more absurd or just more loony. Out of this tradition comes Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” although with rather tougher language than that of, say, Synge, but with that balance of wit and melodrama Irish playwrights (think Brian Friel) excel at.
Protagonist here is the youth known as Cripple Billy, with a gnarled left hand and rigid left leg, making walking arduous and kissing a girl unlikely. His parents drowned under mysterious circumstances, and he was reared by two maiden ladies who run an erratic food shop, where canned peas proliferate at the expense of nearly everything else.
These ladies are the flightier Kate Osbourne, who in frequent times of distress talks to stones, and her more skeptical sister, Eileen, who doesn’t. Both sisters, however, fret equally over Billy, who likes to gaze prolongedly at cows and uncharacteristically reads books. Billy sees his main chance in getting to another island, Innishmore, where (and this is historical fact) the documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty is shooting his movie, “Man of Aran.”
The island doctor has found Billy tubercular, but the boy forges a letter from him that persuades the local boatman, Babbybobby Bennett to ferry him over to Inishmore, along with the young siblings Bartley and Helen McCormick, the latter the village belle, a potty-mouthed virago, hard as nails. She hopes to make it into Flaherty’s movie and on to Hollywood; instead, Billy is chosen.
Ah, those rowdy Hibernian rustics! Babbybobby has no compunction about beating a cripple to a pulp. And Johnnypateenmike, brazenly lives off being the island’s living newspaper, reciting the local news to whoever will listen and feed him in exchange. Among the colorful specimens count Mammy, the 90-year-old, ribald and alcoholic mother, whom Johnny indulges in liquor hoping to prevent her from seemingly living forever.
We get a scene of Billy, unsuccessful and languishing in a shabby Hollywood hotel, and another of him back and turning up at a screening of “Man of Aran,” which induces comic violence. Helen continues provocative, while her brother Bartley suffers from an addiction to sweets, and from excessive of optimism about life in Ireland, which cannot be that bad, given that even sharks have a way of returning to its waters.
The production is directed by Britain’s gifted Michael Grandage with members of the solid acting company he recently founded. Billy, however, is played by Daniel Radcliffe, the incarnator of Harry Potter, who also has notable stage experience. He offers a sharp portrayal that includes heartrending difficulty in walking and an awesome tubercular cough.
There are vivid sets and costumes by Christopher Oram, savvy lighting by Paule Constable, and austere music by Alex Baranowski. But for all that, the play is more interesting than moving, more cannily contrived than sincerely compelling.
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Harvey Fierstein has shown significant ability as a playwright (notably “Torch Song Trilogy”) and actor (most winningly in “Hairspray”), and one expected much from his new play, “Casa Valentina,” with strong actors directed by the talented Joe Mantello.
Expectations, however, are only partly fulfilled. This is the fictional story of a ramshackle bungalow community, Casa Susanna, that actually existed in the Catskills in the sixties, when the play takes place. It was a haven for men who enjoyed crossdressing, for which, even without being homosexual, they needed a hiding place from the world and, if they had them, their wives.
It is a place run by a married couple, Rita (Mare Winningham, excellent) and George (Patrick Page, ditto), himself a crossdresser as Valentina. Rita is a tough lady who sympathetically caters to the clientele’s needs, and is understanding of her husband’s transvestism. The play opens promisingly on a tiered set by Scott Pask, in whose various rooms several men are making themselves up into women. And sure enough, the light-hearted first half of the play is not half bad.
The action centers on Jonathon (the not particularly appealing Gabriel Ebert), a first-time visitor under the name Miranda, who needs to be made over and guided by the more experienced clients. These include Bessie, a burly former marine, who nevertheless does a hearty job as a quasi-female and contributes lively comedy.
Also Charlotte (the terrific Reed Birney), the most energetic customer, who could almost be a dominatrix, and who endeavors to organize the hotel guests into a sorority, which would give them legal status, but would also entail some serious disadvantages. There is, further, Charlotte’s friend Gloria (Nick Westrate), by far the most successful crossdresser, who looks best in drag, and who is as savvy as all getout.
There are, moreover, the elderly Terry (John Cullum), and the character labeled the Judge (which he is), at the Casa as Amy, who provides legal advice. All goes relatively well in Act One, but in Act Two the play turns much more galumphingly serious, and there is even a disturbing dramatic climax, giving the lie to the notion that none of these men are homosexuals, one of the play’s main ideas until it is rather undercut.
That incident is brought about by the Judge (Larry Pine), who creates trouble, and on whose behalf the play’s only other female character, his daughter (Lisa Emery) makes a brief, somewhat underwritten, appearance.
In the very end, Rita has a quite puzzling line, and George a strange, wordless gesture, both of which are meant to have deep meaning, but leave me, I am sorry to say, in the dark. So here it is: a flawed play that begins entertainingly enough, but ends up as—in the unintended sense—a drag.
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. To learn more, visit the www.JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.