Tuesday, September 8, 2015

56. Review: LITTLE THING, BIG THING (seen September 3, 2015)

"A Big Little Play"
Stars range from 5-1.
 According to a June 2012 item reprinted on the September 4 New York Times website there were as many as 7,600 Fotomat one-hour photo processing centers nationwide in 1993. They, and their like in other countries, have long been displaced by digital photography, which is a terrible shame for the characters in Donal O’Kelly’s LITTLE THING, BIG THING, which is now at 59E59 Theaters, as part of this season’s Origin’s 1st Irish Theatre Festival, under the aegis of Dublin’s Fishamble: the New Play Company after a showing at the Edinburgh Fringe.

There are 17 characters in Mr. O’Kelly’s often amusing but sometimes muddy play, all of them played by two wonderfully talented thespians, Mr. O’Kelly and Sorcha Fox, whose principal roles are those of the Irish ex-con Larry O’Donnell, in his 50s, and the Scots-Irish Sister Martha McCann, a 40ish nun who’s been working in Nigeria for years. Martha's in Ireland to sell an old convent, and Larry’s agreed to pull off one last caper by stealing a costly Virgin Mary statue from the same place. Circumstances throw them together and the wily thief and the earthy nun find themselves in a madcap flight in Larry’s rundown van, seeking to escape armed people seeking something in the nun’s possession. This is a roll of film she’s brought from Africa and, because of an incriminating image on it, has got to get developed before the nefarious Nigerian commander following her get his hands on it. However, Larry happens to have a valuable—to him at any rate—roll of film with him as well, which helps both to complicate the situation and, at one point, extricate the nun from serious danger.
Donal O'Kelly, Sorcha Fox. Photo: Pat Redmond.
In what may remind some of Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS, both in its film and theatrical versions, the mismatched pair run into tight (mostly conventional) situations from which they must find clever ways to extract themselves, and a colorful variety of characters as they flee, all of them embodied via simple variations in body language and speech. They include another criminal, Nigerian security agents, a solicitor, Garda police officers, a blind priest, and a Nigerian named Henry Barr, who fled years earlier to Ireland after leading protests against Scarab, a wicked oil company responsible for despoiling the land and making people sick.

While O’Kelly makes clear his anger over the malpractices of all-powerful, ecologically catastrophic corporations and their official enablers, his play is essentially a comic melodrama about the predictable but nonetheless touching union of Larry and the nun, one who chastises her partner in flight with his excessive use of the “f” word before she too finds herself unable to avoid flinging it about. (But wouldn't they say "fecking"?)

Promising as its premise is, the play’s narrative requires that you pay very close attention; following its many twists and turns, and keeping tabs on who’s speaking at any time, isn’t easy, and the task’s made even more challenging by the heavy dialects and the playwright’s propensity for mingling creatively imaginative, semi-poetic, often onomatopoeic dialogue with straightforward, naturalistic language. The characters, often speaking directly to the audience, express themselves through internal thoughts as well as conventional discourse, sometimes blurring communication.

Happily, both Mr. O’Kelly and Ms. Fox are impressively animated, using their flexible faces (each has terrifically mobile eyes) and bodies with marked versatility. Aside from those all-important rolls of film (whose seemingly anachronistic presence is part of the playwright’s plan), all props are mimed (even a wall Larry and Martha lean on). John Comiskey’s highly simplified set suggesting chain-link walls provides only two chairs, and he evokes a remarkable number of moods with not much more than a handful of lighting instruments. Director Jim Culleton does such exceptional work in the way he moves his actors through their precisely timed paces that my guest, a professor of directing, thought he might ask his students to see the play so they could learn how much could be done with so little. As the play itself often suggests, little things often lead to big ones.


59E59 Theaters
59 East Fifty-Ninth Street
Through September 27