Thursday, March 28, 2019

193 (2018-2019): Review: JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK (seen March 27, 2019)

“The Whole World’s in a Terrible State of Chassis”

Five and a quarter years ago, in December 2013, I reviewed the Irish Repertory Theatre’s excellent production, under Charlotte Moore’s direction, of Juno and the Paycock, starring J. Cameron Smith and Ciarán O’Reilly as the eponymous married couple. The Irish Rep has again revived the play, this time with Neil Pepe directing, as part of its not-to-be missed, three-play O’Casey cycle, which got off to a magnificent start with The Shadow of a Gunman and will soon add The Plough and the Stars. The new Juno and the Paycock stars Maryann Plunkett as Juno but O’Reilly returns as the Paycock, while several others from the previous cast join them, namely, Ed Malone as Johnny Boyle, Terry Donnelly as Maisie Madigan, John Keating as Joxer Daly, and James Russell as Charles Bentham.
The following review combines comment on the current production with liberal helpings from my earlier coverage.   
Maryann Plunkett, Ciarán O’Reilly. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
"Paycock" (peacock) is only one of the many thickly Irish-accented words spoken in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s latest revival of Juno and the Paycock, Sean O’Casey’s 1924 tragicomedy set in Dublin’s slums in 1922 during Ireland’s bloody Civil War, the so-called Troubles. Director Neil Pepe has brought energy and life to this naturalistically dire, unsentimentally satiric picture of a troubled family held together by its long-suffering but resilient matriarch.
Sarah Street, Ed Malone, Maryann Plunkett. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
It’s not a perfect production, but it’s about as good a one as any American company can be expected to offer, especially one ensconced in a physically limited Off-Broadway venue. Interestingly, the new production turns the entire theatre, including the passageway to the auditorium, into the crumbling tenement in which the Boyles and their colorful neighbors reside. Laundry hangs over the audience’s heads, the audience right wall is fitted with bricks, a door, and windows, and even the small, offstage area, visible at stage right only to those seated on the audience left side, looks believably like the hall outside the door to the Boyle’s flat. 
Maryann Plunkett, Sarah Street, Ed Malone. Photo: Carol Rosegg. 
As expected of any production at this invaluable institution, the accents, atmosphere, and emotional atmosphere of 1922 Dublin are captured with loving authenticity. The oddly situated stage demands creative readjustments to accommodate O’Casey’s requirements. Nevertheless, we get—through Charlie Corcoran’s naturalistic set design, Michael Gottlieb’s sensitive lighting, Linda Fisher and David Toser’s period-perfect costumes, and Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab’s sound design—a true enough sense of the peeling-wallpaper, tattered-clothing shabbiness in which “Captain” Jack Boyle; his wife, Juno; his daughter, Mary (Sarah Street); and his son, Johnny (Ed Malone) are forced to live. 
Maryann Plunkett, Sarah Street. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
 This is a world of drunks and liars, “prognosticators and procrastinators,” as Jack, the eponymous “paycock,” calls them, ignoring how closely he himself fits the bill; a world of financial hardship, laziness, guilt, loyalty and betrayal, love and dishonor, debt, inhumanity, and a religious faith drilled so deeply into human souls as to allow questioning but never abandonment of belief in God’s existence. 
Maryann Plunkett, Ciarán O’Reilly. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
It is also a place of dreams of a better life, for these people and for Ireland, and, even in characters as lowly as Jack and his shifty drinking “butty” Joxer (John Keating), O’Casey manages to plant the seeds of poetry, which blossom in his language like flowers from the manure of despair. Pepe’s production, to a satisfying degree, captures this complex world, in which booze, dancing, and singing mingle with pain, anguish, and suffering, belief does battle with skepticism, and human decency, ever in short supply, gleams like the full moon when it emerges.
Harry Smith, Sarah Street. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Juno and the Paycock is rich in character and incident, and, despite its closeness to a particular time and place, hasn’t lost its universality and power. In The Irish Dramatic Movement, Una Ellis-Fermor, writing of it and O’Casey’s other early plays, notes that “he reveals, almost as though unconscious of the novelty of his picture, the easy, vigorous, expressive speech and action of people in continual and inescapable contact with their fellows; the mixture of good-fellowship and protective, selfish indifference. His people reveal now the distracted, unstable habits of mind that spring from continual stimulus and a procession of minor excitements, now the seemingly callous detachment, the bleak and lonely obstinacy that is a stronger personality’s resistance to this bombardment directed upon its attention and emotion.” 
John Keating, Robert Langdon Lloyd. Photo: Carol Rosegg. 
These words suggest the difficulty actors face in successfully realizing such a world. In the 2013 version, I thought that even the best of the company tended to push a bit too hard in Act One, threatening the veracity of O’Casey’s naturalistic world. I felt otherwise this time, finding the actors to be honest and sincere from the start, with the production benefiting from many carefully molded performances, even in the smaller roles. 

Ed Malone, Sarah Street, James Russell, Maryann PlunkettCiarán O’Reilly. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Ciarán O’Reilly excels as Capt. Boyle, the blustery, shiftless, blarney-spouting head of the household, regaling the world with his fantasies about once being a world traveling sailor, and complaining of leg pains whenever the possibility of work arises. Maryann Plunkett, like her predecessor, is superb as Juno, the pious, decent, stalwart wife and mother, who has no truck with Jack’s foolishness yet is herself foolish enough to entrust him with handling affairs after the family learns of a fortune it presumably has inherited. 
John Keating, Maryann Plunkett, Ciarán O’Reilly. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Each actor brings true conviction to their demanding roles, he as the drink-sodden loudmouth, she as the maternal force constantly fighting an uphill battle against his eternal malingering and ignorance, while also facing the problems created by Mary’s romantic affairs and the physically and psychologically damaged Johnny's fears regarding retribution for his actions in the political strife. 
Meg Hennessy, Ūna Clancy, Maryann Plunkett, Michael Mellamphy. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The supporting players include Harry Smith, who turns in a commendable job as Jerry Devine, the union man who loves Mary but turns her down when he learns of her pregnancy. As Charles Bentham, the schoolteacher who gets Mary pregnant only to abandon her, James Russell is suitably supercilious, while Sarah Street’s Mary is simple and believable in one of the less flamboyant roles. More colorful is Terry Donnelly as Maisie Madigan, who once again creates a strong impression, both comic and serious, in her several scenes. Ūna Clancy as Mrs. Tancred, stoically mourning the death of her son, makes the most of her brief appearance, as does the always delightful Robert Langdon Lloyd, here playing Needle Nugent, the tailor.  
Ciarán O’Reilly, John Keating. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In 2013, I was less impressed by John Keating's Joxer and Ed Malone’s Johnny. Keating’s interpretation of Joxer, constantly spouting aphorisms and calling everything “daarlin,” has grown deeper, and, while he still plays broadly, it seems to fit much better now and he no longer misses the subtle lyricism and humor given by O’Casey even to this creepy character. Malone’s Johnny, who lost an arm and was shot in the hip during the conflict, still seems too whiny and unsympathetic. He also appears a bit too old for the part.  
Terry Donnelly, Ed Malone, John Keating, Ciarán O’Reilly, Maryann Plunkett, John Keating. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
O’Casey often fills Jack Boyle’s mouth with mangled eloquence, as when he asks, “I ofen looked up at the sky an’ assed meself the question—what is the moon, what is the stars?” Whatever they are, they’re shining on this revival, belying Jack’s favorite mantra, “The whole world’s in a terrible state of chassis.”  

Irish Repertory Theatre

132 W. 22nd St., NYC

Through May 25