American theater speaks with an Irish lilt

As a child I was told by a family friend that there were two kinds of people in the world: those who were Irish and those who wished to be Irish.

That notion is working overtime in theaters across America, where the wearing of the green is as prominent as the familiar red-velour curtains that drape across the stage.

The Irish label is selling, from Frank and Malachy McCourt's books and their theater works to the endless touring of those step-dancers of "Riverdance - The Show" to the old-country brogue that can be heard in theaters in cities such as New York, Boston, and Chicago.

The tiny Sgn Theatre Company in Boston is dedicated to presenting the works of contemporary Irish playwrights. "We started before the big rush on Irish theater except for the plays of [well-known playwright] Brian Friel," says Carmel O'Reilly, who founded the troupe in 1992. "Being in Boston would suggest we were playing to an Irish audience, but it's not so. Over 60 percent of our audiences are not Irish."

Whether set on the streets of Dublin or in a rural village, in the present day or decades ago, Irish characters have a quality the venerable Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, called the "life force." Despite characters whose future might look bleak to a viewer, they never lose hope - or their sense of humor.

The theater season in New York opened this fall with two new plays, Friel's "Give Me Your Answer, Do!" and Richard Nelson's "James Joyce's 'The Dead,' " an adaptation of a 1914 Joyce short story from "The Dubliners."

Like other playwrights from Ireland, Friel writes about people who are doomed. But since they speak with a poet's tongue, his works still manage to have an uplifting tone.

Give Me Your Answer, Do! is no exception. Now appearing on the tiny stage of the Gramercy Theatre, a dream cast of American actors brings to life three married couples, an outsider who holds the key to their fortune, and a child's heartbreaking search for a normal life. Friel intertwines two themes: a writer who must choose between his integrity and the easier path to popularity, and the compromises made in a long-term marriage.

Under Kyle Donnelly's direction, each emotional transition is plucked for resonance, bringing people face-to-face with their dilemmas. Kate Burton plays the burned out Daisy and Joel Grey portrays her father, a song-and-dance man who has outrun the excuses for his behavior.

The satisfaction here, as in so many of Friel's other works, is the presence of a literate mind pondering how a life must be lived, along with the specific sense of the Irish sensibilities.

In James Joyce's The Dead, an off-Broadway production at Playwrights Horizons, the scene is Dublin in 1904. It's Christmastime at the dinner-dance given by the Morkan sisters, Kate and Julia, who are based on Joyce's memories of his maiden aunts.

The lead character, Gabriel Conroy (portrayed by screen actor Christopher Walken), also serves as the narrator. The rest of the cast comes with impressive credentials, including Blair Brown of the 1980s TV sitcom "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" as Conroy's wife. The story hasn't been set to music in the conventional way, rather the songs and dances are performed by guests at the party as if they were spontaneous.

In Boston, A Couple of Blaguards, a revue by Frank and Malachy McCourt, has opened in the Terrace Room of Boston's Park Plaza. The brothers McCourt wrote the autobiographical stage piece before Frank tackled similar material in his two literary memoirs, "Angela's Ashes" and "Tis," and before Malachy's book "A Monk Swimming."

Richard McElvain as Frank and Shay Duffin as Malachy in "Blaguards" are convincing as the brothers. They are funny and sad by turn, but mostly hilarious in acting out family stories. Duffin and McElvain portray other characters in deft, economic snatches, adding singing and dancing to the mix.

At the Boston Center for the Arts, The Sgn Theatre Company is presenting Vincent Murphy's At The Black Pig's Dyke. It's a musical drama that merges the country's Celtic folk customs with its seething 20th-century political agenda.

"At The Black Pig's Dyke" links the story of three generations of a family decimated by the explosive hatreds that divide Ireland with the arrival of a troupe of Irish mummers, the masked amateur actors who have roamed the roads at Christmastime for centuries. A 10-member acting ensemble plays the Boles family and its neighbors.

*'Give Me Your Answer, Do!' is at the Gramercy Theatre in New York until Jan. 2; James Joyce's The Dead,' at Playwrights Horizons in New York ends Nov. 28; The Sgn Theatre Company's revival of 'At the Black Pig's Dyke' at the Boston Center for the Arts closes Nov. 20; 'A Couple of Blaguards' at the Terrace Room of the Boston Park Plaza is an open-ended run. Among other Irish-themed plays at regional theaters is 'The Irish ... and How They Got That Way' at the Mercury Theater in Chicago, through Dec. 19.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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