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Ever since The Weir opened in London, I’ve been trying to get a handle on the play. The title didn’t help much; nor did the descriptions of critics who, in city after city, showered various Weir productions with raves, never making the play itself sound remotely appealing.
As best I could figure from press clippings, playwright Conor McPherson had gathered a few Irishmen in a bar and set them to telling each other ghost stories. Evocative writing notwithstanding—and nearly everyone calls the author’s language “transporting”—an evening of spooky monologues sounded more like a Halloween parlor trick than a play.
Well, I’m now chastened. The evening is indeed a series of monologues about faeries and poltergeists and the like, strung together with bar talk on the order of “Will ye be havin’ another small one, Jack?” And, yes, I know that sounds deadly, but damned if it doesn’t add up to one of the more…um…transporting plays Round House Theatre has mounted in a while.
Partly, that’s because of its mounting. Designer Jos. B. Musumeci Jr. has conjured up a persuasively cozy Irish tavern, which Jonathan Blandin has lit with a warmth that dissipates whenever an open door admits sound designer Tony Angelini’s whooshing wintry winds. The people who inhabit this comfortable country pub are gruff, rosy-cheeked, and attired by Rosemary Pardee in heavy, class-defining wools and leathers.
But design can take a production only so far. There’s something else at work in Nick Olcott’s staging: a familiar, lived-in quality that’s evoked in a wordless prologue in which Jack (Jerry Whiddon), after first ascertaining that the pub’s proprietor isn’t around, places the price of a pint on the bar (making his own change from the till) and then engages in a five-minute battle with a recalcitrant tap before settling, with a grimace, for a bottled stout.
Pub owner Brendan (R. Scott Thompson) arrives shortly thereafter and seems not at all surprised to find Jack (who is an auto mechanic) under the bar doing diagnostic work on its keg connectors. Jack is a growler and a shouter; Brendan is congenitally quiet. Somewhere between those extremes is Jim (Rick Foucheux), who works in Jack’s shop and lives with his ailing mum, who has been “fading fast for years.”
All three are bachelors, variously aging, and all are nonplused that a fellow named Finbar (Marty Lodge) has been seen squiring an attractive young newcomer named Valerie (Kathryn Kelley) around the neighborhood. Finbar, who left for the big city when he was just a lad, is resented by the others, not merely because he came back to buy up half the town but also because, having married, he never seems to miss a chance to rub his attractiveness to women in their faces.
When he and Valerie arrive, however, it becomes clear that they aren’t a couple. Valerie has acquired a nearby house, and Finbar is just being neighborly, showing her around the area and helping her acclimate to her new home. The news that she’ll be staying in town gives the bachelors palpitations, leading to a certain amount of posturing on everyone’s part. To defuse the situation, Finbar buys the first of many rounds of drinks and prompts Jack to tell a story they all know about a local haunted house. It turns out to be the one Valerie has acquired, and it sets off a round of other poltergeist narratives.
Each ghost story is self-contained and reasonably haunting in its own right, but each also possesses an intriguing connection to Valerie’s situation, so they play into one other in ways that give the evening a cumulative power. To reveal more would be to spoil the play’s devious surprises—which is why reviews don’t ever make the evening sound like much more than a series of acting exercises. You’ll just have to trust me that storytelling is, in this case, its own reward, and The Weir ends up a dramatic whole, in spite of its episodic nature.
Credit the performances at Round House with making each episode vivid, even if Olcott seems determined to make the evening more unequivocally affirmative than its author probably intends. The men are all persuasive, alternately clumsy and eloquent, defensive and generous to one another. And Kelley’s Valerie turns the act of listening to them almost revelatory as she warms herself with white wine near a wood stove that glimmers at center stage. (I’m not a great judge of accents, but the ones on display at Round House seem Irish by way, perhaps, of Boston—close enough that the sound of a rolled R doesn’t jar, but not so close that you can imagine any of these folks having spent much time in Ireland.) McPherson’s writing is, as rumored, gorgeous—at once profane, vernacular, and poetic—reminding us that there’s a reason folks have sat around fires for eons, drinking heartily and getting drunk on storytelling.
Ally Currin is a Washington actress and playwright who has been best known up to now for giving funny performances in other people’s work. But with two of her scripts—both about writers—premiering just weeks apart on different D.C. stages, it may be time to start viewing her as a playwright, first and foremost.
The drama, Church of the Open Mind—about a writer whose controlling father seems to want to edit her into oblivion and whose boyfriend just wants her to love him—was badly enough miscast a few weeks ago in its Charter Theatre production to seem utterly underwhelming. But in a sparkling production at Clark Street Playhouse, the comedy, Learning Curves—about a grad student whose professor seems to want to edit her into oblivion and whose weakest student just wants her to love him—emerges as a brightly clever romantic piece. Oddly, the comedy has the emotional resonance that escaped Currin in her more serious play.
Learning Curves centers on Emma (Melissa Flaim), who is about to defend her doctoral dissertation about how Kate shouldn’t put up with Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. Emma knows a lot about putting up with men: She’s engaged to Sully (Bruce Alan Rauscher), her articulate, controlling grad-school adviser, who insists on keeping their relationship secret so it won’t endanger his career. She’s also being very clumsily wooed by Jay (Maxwell Hessman), an undergrad who can barely maintain a C- in Emma’s creative-writing class because he’s so infatuated with her he barely hears a word of her lectures. Also present—this being the Washington Shakespeare Company, after all—is Kate (Grace Eboigbe), who pops straight from the pages of Shrew to offer Emma advice at appropriately awkward moments.
Kate’s presence isn’t managed as neatly as one might wish. In fact, those who don’t know Shrew are likely to be confused by the scene that opens the play (the “I say it is the moon…” “I know it is the sun…” argument between Kate and Petruchio). Still, it’s easy to imagine a finesse—Currin could have given Emma a few lines that placed the Shrew scene in the context of one of her classroom lectures, say—and anyway, the contemporary romantic triangle, once it gets established in Lee Mikeska Gardner’s breezily amusing production, is such fun that minor problems with the play’s dramatic structure are rendered all but irrelevant.
The performances are uniformly appealing. Flaim makes Emma an endearing ditz, aware that she’s engaged to a control freak as manipulative as the one she deplores in Shakespeare but unwilling to embrace in her undergrad admirer, his opposite. Rauscher, meanwhile, offsets the fiance’s intellectual vanity by making him increasingly insecure as he pontificates, while Hessman manages the neat trick of turning the undergrad’s very insouciance—the kid is adorably goofy, played so winningly you want to pat him on the head and offer him a treat—into another form of male dominance.
That is, incidentally, sort of the point of the evening. Currin has a way of blending enough ambivalence into sitcom situations that they end up having emotional heft. Alas, she also tends to overwrite—in this case, stating the heroine’s emotional dilemma so explicitly in the final scene that it feels almost like a lecture. Nor can she resist giving Kate lines in modern syntax, when it would be far smarter if the character spoke exclusively in lines from Shrew. Still, these are quibbles in an evening that’s at once very smart about gender issues and a hell of a lot of fun. CP