Why, one might wonder, did the matinee audience when I attended Irish playwright David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue at the Public greet this intensely emotional, explosively acted, and muscularly verbal play with such tepidly polite applause?
Could it have been the handling of an infant’s fate in an even more sensationalistic way than what was done in Edward Bond’s Saved (1965)? Could it have been because of the other horrifically violent deeds they’d just witnessed? Could it have been the lack of immediate resonance for a New York audience in the Protestant-Catholic, Unionist-IRA divide that roiled Irish life for so many years and still courses beneath Northern Irish culture?
|Stephen Rea, Ronke Adékoluẹjo. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.|
Could it have been because the central issue—the bizarre obsession of a bigoted, eccentric, middle-class man—is hard to sit through for an uninterrupted hour and 40 minutes of skewed self-justifications? Or could it have been because the play exists in a world where three of its five characters are determinedly sane while two get by while being murderously batty?
On the one hand, I have to admit being gripped by Ireland’s often corrosively toxic, yet bitingly funny, language; by the singular excellence of the five-member cast brought over from the original staging co-produced by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and London’s Royal Court Theatre; and—for a few moments, at any rate—by the play’s premise and point of view.
Eventually, though, Cyprus Avenue, named for a Belfast street where the leading character grew up, is unable to maintain a minimal level of plausibility, forcing you to watch its wheels spinning mainly under the power of its vibrant acting, especially that of the marvelous Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) doing his best to make a near-impossible role believable.
|Andrea Irvine, Amy Molloy. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.|
Rea plays Eric, father of Julie (Amy Molloy) and husband of Bernie (Andrea Irvine), whom we meet being interviewed by Bridget (Ronke Adékoluẹjo), a mental health specialist. Bridget happens to be black, which prompts the oblivious Eric to refer to her with the “n” word. This casual slur reveals a man teeming with intolerance and delusions; in fact, he’s convinced that his newborn granddaughter doesn’t merely bear a resemblance to Gerry Adams, the bearded Irish republican politician and former Sinn Féin leader, but actually is him.
|Amy Molloy. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.|
Eric, in scenes both with the therapist and his wife and daughter, expresses with mountainous vitriol his hatred of Adams, the IRA, and Catholics. Despite being Irish born and raised, he insists he’s British and detests his fellow Irishmen. Joining him in volcanic anger against much the same targets is the pistol-packing Slim (Chris Corrigan), a fellow Orangeman, who first appears dressed and masked like a terrorist threatening Eric’s life, whose loyalties he at first mistakes, but eventually is more or less persuaded to kill Eric’s grandchild.
|Stephen Rea, Chris Corrigan. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.|
I’ll skip further plot details, noting only that when the play ends, the white-carpeted stage (designed, along with the costumes, by Lizzie Clachie), resembles a Shakespearean tragedy. The set, by the way, is little more than an open platform with two white leather settees, perfectly lit by Paul Keogan, and placed between the audience seating on either side.
|Stephen Rea. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.|
For all its discomfiting dramatic tension and vicious behavior, Cyprus Avenue, sharply directed by Vicky Featherstone, is too exaggerated to take seriously. It’s intended as a devilish satire in the vein of Jonathan Swift on the incivility of our political discourse, wherein people say the worst things possible about their political, religious, or racial opposites, even taking matters into their own hands when pushed far enough. It’s a pertinent theme but hard to appreciate when its chief exemplar is a blooming idiot who tests his conviction by drawing a beard on an infant with a magic marker and putting tiny spectacles on her.
Given the normalcy of Eric’s wife and daughter, who—until things get out of hand—bend over backward to accommodate his outbursts, and the idiocy of his fervent belief that the baby is who he says it is, it’s hard to accept that they didn’t do something about dear old dad’s lunacy while there was still time. But the most egregious overstepping comes in the person of Slim, the second lunatic, who, despite being well-read in the extreme, is ready—for a while, at least—to shoot a five-week old in her carriage.
Corrigan and Rea make a perfect pair as the menacing Slim and the vituperative Eric, although it's the latter, whose slouching gait, curly mop, and memorably sad sack face is what you’ll be paying to see. Nonetheless, it’s a baby’s face that dominates Cyprus Avenue and causes so much bloody mayhem.
Public Theater/LuEsther Hall
425 Lafayette St. NYC
Through July 29