Just what D.C. needs: another unreliable landlord, another dastardly lawyer. At least the attorney in question tells you straight out that he’s a baddie—but you knew that from the black cape and the handlebar mustache, no?
Yep, this is melodrama, and unabashedly so. Solas Nua, the energetic young company that’s made a kind of religion out of brutally beautiful plays from Ireland’s hottest contemporary voices, has taken an old-school turn with its latest production. The Drunkard began life in 1850, when one W.H. Smith and an anonymous collaborator decided that Americans needed a lesson about the perils of the devil drink. They cooked up a nicely ripened story about a widow lady, her comely but innocent daughter, the scheming courthouse rat intent on doing them out of their poor cottage, and the hapless sot who holds the deed to the property; in Victorian-era America, this was apparently enough to make The Drunkard the country’s box-office champ until Uncle Tom’s Cabin came along to eclipse it.
There is an Irish angle, though: The play’s latest incarnation is set in the Dublin countryside—other adaptations include a Barry Manilow musical that you can catch in a Mifflintown, Pa., production come October, should you feel the need—and the rewrite comes courtesy of the Dublin-based dramatist Tom Murphy, whose The Gigli Concert got a revival at Woolly Mammoth last April.
Now, if you saw Gigli, you’ll know that Murphy has something of a specialty in agonized psychology, so it’s probably inevitable that his take on The Drunkard, while it certainly dances amusingly enough through the purpler passages, packs plenty of darkness in its shadows: There’s meant to be real pathos in the plight of weak-kneed Edward Kilcullen (Patrick Bussink), a basically good-hearted guy in thrall to his hankering for the hooch, and apparently the precarious situation of our dewy-eyed ingénue (Julia Stemper) is meant to start audiences—Irish audiences, anyway—thinking about certain land-ownership laws and the inequities thereof.
The trouble, in a play based on so thoroughly outdated a form, is the tension Murphy’s intelligence creates between the impulse to feel and the impulse to laugh at melodrama’s built-in excesses. When a writer with Murphy’s gifts sets out to put flesh on the bones of stock characters, there’s not really any stopping him; they’re still stuck in a hoary old form, though, and while Jessica Burgess’ cleverly upholstered production tries to honor both a vanished performance style and the layered artifact Murphy has presented her with, that tension ultimately proves too much.
There’s plenty to like: The sensitive live music, played skillfully by Jesse Terrill and Jake Koenig; the wit that led designers Robbie Hayes and Debra Kim Sivigny to line up liquor-bottle empties to help diffuse the footlights’ glow; a nicely balanced complement of leading performances, from Steven J. Hoochuk’s insufferably noble narrator to Jonathon Church’s balletically wicked lawyer to Bussink’s winsomely wretched Kilcullen. And Murphy, moreover, trips lightly along the line that divides parody (the play’s chock-full of Irish stereotypes, which he’s happy to mock) from plain idiocy (he never goes so far as to make light of Kilcullen’s weakness, the scourge of alcoholism being all too real in the histories of both Murphy and his country).
And for a good long while, it all works nicely, with plot developments unfolding as if to a conductor’s beat and Burgess finding clever ways to enliven even the inevitable scenes. (One particular night of bibulous excess, backlit through the scrolling scrim that serves as constantly changing scenery, sticks in the mind.)
Somewhere after intermission, though—well after it’s become clear how Hoochuk’s Sir Arden Rencelaw will eventually save the day, and which of several subsidiary characters holds the key to the victory—The Drunkard’s narrative engine goes clunk into neutral. The idling allows Murphy (or maybe his 19th-century collaborators) to underscore notions that don’t need it and work in bits of music and puppetry that don’t add enough to be worth the bother.
Murphy’s accomplishment, and Solas Nua’s, is that the show holds together as long as it does. Those last 40 minutes, though, are like any time spent sober in the company of a booze-soaked blowhard—and at the 2:20 mark, when the assembled forces break out in yet another lilting Irish melody, you’ll almost wish they’d break out a little Barry Manilow.