Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Two fractious young Irishmen, two days in a freewheeling, funhouse Dublin, two raucous nights that end in two gut-wrenching twists of fate: That’s Howie the Rookie, the latest from Solas Nua, a youngish theater company whose name (“New Light”) seems increasingly ironic given the gorgeous darkness of what it’s been putting onstage. Last June it was Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs, a brutally infantile poem of longing set in the toxic slums of Cork; in October came Walsh’s Misterman, all fervor and fury, another contemporary Irish portrait that might as well have had Hieronymus Bosch’s signature on it. Now it’s this beautifully structured diptych from Mark O’Rowe, a story that speaks of love in a vocabulary of curses and fisticuffs and speaks of loss in the plainest incoherencies. It’s blisteringly funny, it’s scatologically foul, and as performed by Eric Messner and Dan Brick, it’s damn near heartbreaking.

Messner plays the Howie Lee, who’s telling us as the play opens about how he came to be involved in the beating of the Rookie Lee: It seems the Howie’s buddy the Peaches (most everybody gets a definite article at some point, for reasons presumably rooted in Dubliner culture) caught scabies from the mattress of a mutual acquaintance, and all signs point to the Rookie as the source of the infestation. “Someone has to pay for the Peaches’ sufferin’ and shame,” the Howie tells us, the scabies cure—involving a caustic medication, “bollocks shaved to bits,” and an ice-water soak—having turned out to be worse on the Peaches than the disease.

The Rookie himself (Brick) will turn up in Act 2, eye blacked and lip split, and his side of the story will get told, if only obliquely. But the evening’s first half, which chronicles the hunting of the Rookie and what happens at home while the Howie is engaged in it, is Messner’s alone to narrate. It’s a straightforward, everyday, adventures-in-the-life-of-a-capital-G-guy kinda tale—if anything involving mattress-burning and minivan-surfing and an encounter with the Howie’s sometime girlfriend the Avalanche can be described as everyday. (“Arse enough for three stools,” she’s got. “Sixteen stone, size 40s on her chest, a few tats.” And she’s prone to beery belches.) The boys locate and lay into the Rookie, a blonde in a bar enters the picture briefly (she’ll turn up again in Act 2), and the Avalanche makes an ill-fated appearance on the dance floor. It all means nothing, and it all means everything, because it’s the totality of this aimless, cocky fuck’s life—and then the Howie goes home, where, in a dozen harsh, spare lines, his world and all its crucial, meaningless details come utterly undone.

And then it’s on to the Rookie, on to another solo narrative so coarse, so far back into the laddish mundane that you’d get whiplash but for the intermission. “Handsome bastard, I am….Break hearts and hymens, I do,” the Rookie tells us, midway through a sniggering story about how he banged his da’s new young tramp just to pay the old man back for abandoning the family. That’s by way of explaining how desperate the Rookie would have to be to go to his father looking for a loan—which he does, momentarily, the alternative being a pair of busted knees courtesy of Ladyboy, the local hard case whose Siamese fighting fish the Rookie has accidentally (and hilariously) slaughtered. Like the Howie’s, the Rookie’s story is a chronicle of banal misadventures baroquely described, of bad-boy idiocies rendered heroic by the vulgar poetry of an author so in love with the grimy specifics of his locale that it’s downright dazzling. And like the Howie, the Rookie larks heedlessly, inevitably in the direction of the confrontation O’Rowe sets up at the outset, barreling his thickheaded way past it to a conclusion that’s even more gruesome than the Act 1 horror that sets it up.

If it all sounds too heavy, too dark, too cruel to be borne, O’Rowe and Solas Nua somehow render it both palatable and plausible. The evening’s shadowed confessionals—both men tell their tales alone onstage, with no props and nothing but a mirrored back wall for a set—feel both intimate and epic, and O’Rowe allows each of them to discover and to wonder at a tenderness neither quite gets the chance to understand. The lateness, the briefness of that discovery leaves the audience shell-shocked and in mourning when the lights come up.

Messner’s terrifically disciplined performance—he masters the Howie’s sudden shifts from laconic to lashing with a physical ease that can come only from serious work—finds a nice complement in Brick’s wilder, freer, rougher-edged reading. The minimalist work of lighting designer Marianne Meadows and sound designer Chris Pifer supports the story without getting in the way. And Solas Nua Artistic Director Linda Murray stages the whole business by not seeming to stage it at all. Her approach makes these Dublin stories, with all their violence and grit and sudden humanity, feel at once utterly foreign and inescapably familiar.

The Rorschach Theatre succeeds with the foreign in its staging of Fair Ladies at a Game of Poem Cards, a British playwright’s adaptation of an 18th-century Japanese play originally created for a form of puppet theater derived from Kabuki. But it hasn’t quite managed the familiar: Few of the characters onstage have much of the individual about them, and director Randy Baker hasn’t discovered a way to communicate enough about the archetypes and social norms behind them to make the play viable as an exercise in performative anthropology.

There’s a good bit to admire: a lovely design, all platforms and screens and projections that exploit the furthest reaches of the rough-edged Sanctuary Theatre space, plus expressive performances from some among the cast. Rahaleh Nassri’s graceful Empress is particularly fetching, and both Patrick Bussink (as a samurai who loves unwisely) and John-Michael MacDonald (as another samurai, a credulous executioner, and a monk’s opportunistic servant) do nicely precise physical work. Certain of the stage pictures are almost exquisite—the release of an enormous aviary full of rare birds, for instance, mimed by three samurai holding tiny wicker cages—and probably will be once the players loosen up and throw themselves wholly into the ballet of the proceedings.

But the fair ladies of the title, maids of honor at the Empress’ court, flutter more or less indistinguishably about. And some of the stock characters—Scott McCormick’s Lord Morotaka, for instance, a baddie figure who may or may not be the inspiration for Godzilla—turn out to be a little too one-dimensionally stock. The real trouble, though, is that the structural formalities that make the play so intriguing as a prospect also make it a virtual impossibility in performance, at least for a modern audience. Peter Oswald, who adapted Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s original in 1996, didn’t help matters by working in iambic pentameter.

The action opens outward from the cloistered binary courts of the Empress and her brother, eventually reaching into the countryside, where a disgraced samurai has retired into hermitage. The deportment of the characters tracks, fittingly, from stylized to coarse; the carefully balanced plot takes us through a fall from grace and a restoration to favor. Nice, in principle. In practice, it means a stately, lyrical first act gets followed by a second that veers jarringly into low comedy and action that moves from urgent into inevitable. Chikamatsu’s audiences would presumably have expected this. Rorschach’s might be excused for finding it troublesome. CP