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Dubliners sparkle in a lackluster parade of visiting theater troupes. N.Y. ARTS FESTIVAL

By Hilary DeVries / July 1, 1988

New York

CRITICS dismissed it as a non-event, a dueling ground for corporate sponsors, an unfocused corraling of already planned artistic happenings. This was the rap on the First New York International Festival of the Arts, an $8 million, two-decades-in-the-making, 350-event celebration of 20th-century music, dance, theater, film, video, circuses, comedy acts, and symposia - some of them world premi`eres. Yet, in the nation's arts capital, would anyone notice? - phone-book-thick press kit notwithstanding. The spare, by comparison, 14-event Los Angeles Arts Festival, last year's extravaganza, featured the newsmaking American debut of Peter Brook's stage epic ``The Mahabharata.'' No such crown jewel capped New York's festivities, particularly among the drama offerings, which few pretended were primo and many considered peculiar. (What was arguably the most significant stage work during the festival, Ingmar Bergman's controversial and sexually charged ``Hamlet,'' was not actually included in it, since Shakespeare had the misfortune of working in the wrong century. In fact, the festival's biggest theater event, the Soviet Union's Maly Dramatic Theatre's eight-hour, 59-actor staging of ``Brothers and Sisters,'' was cancelled after ticket sales slumped and festival funds dwindled. The Maly's replacement production, the less-impressive ``Stars in the Morning Sky,'' was slipped in as an extension of the company's run in Toronto.

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Suddenly Dublin's Gate Theatre productions - Sean O'Casey's ``Juno and the Paycock,'' and a one-man dramatization of Beckett's prose by Barry McGovern - ascended to the top of must-see lists.

Justifiably so. Particularly when the American revivals - O'Neill's ``Long Day's Journey into Night,'' and ``Ah, Wilderness!'' and Williams's ``Night of the Iguana'' - weighed in as flawed, frequently sentimentalized reworkings, despite some big-name stars.

Direction by Joe Dowling, one of Dublin's most acclaimed theater artists, and a stageful of superb leads anchor O'Casey's classic, which could, in less sure hands, veer into bathos or, in the merry second act, balmy mugging.

Beginning with the set, Frank Hallinan Flood's dim, tumbledown Boyle flat, with its dirt-streaked windows and cobwebbed curtains, is an unsentimental embodiment of a Dublin tenement house circa 1920. It is the waning days of the Irish Civil War, and the external strife is felt in the domestic destruction of the Boyle household. Donal McCann's Captain Jack Boyle, the strutting ``paycock'' of the play's title, is a self-deceived and deceiving rogue, whose devotion to the dole and drop of whiskey supersedes his concern for his family, overseen by Geraldine Plunkett's indomitable Juno Boyle.

The two are a quintessential match, enduring figures on the Irish social landscape. And Dowling's direction, illuminating all the crevices, keeps our allegiances from settling on one character or another until the very end. McCann, who played Gabriel Byrne in John Huston's film ``The Dead,'' gives a psychologically canny performance of a man more at odds with himself than with his society. Plunkett's Juno is an all-too-human blend of savior and shrew. Kavanagh gives play its emotional capstone