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In the opening minutes of David Ireland’s dark absurdist comedy Cyprus Avenue, the main character casually utters a shocking racist epithet. Not long afterward, he uses another word so profane that it elicits gasps from the audience. And things only get darker from there.
A co-production of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and London’s Royal Court, Cyprus Avenue is the sort of subversive piece designed to be both horrifying and funny. The play fulfills those aspirations to a degree, but too often at the expense of being alternately alienating and, strangely enough, boring. Long before the evening concludes, the playwright’s straining for effect becomes all too tediously evident.
Still, the production is a must-see if only for the opportunity to watch Stephen Rea (The Crying Game), the great Irish actor too rarely seen on our stages, deliver a tour-de-force performance that almost, but not quite, compensates for the work’s grueling aspects.
We meet Rea’s character, Eric, during a session with black therapist Bridget (Ronke Adekoluejo). We soon learn the reason for Eric being there, as he proceeds to relate his grim story in the form of flashbacks. But not before assuring Bridget that, despite hailing from Ulster, he is “anything but Irish.”
Living in Belfast on the upscale street that provides the play’s name (and inspired a classic Van Morrison song), Eric is a staunch Protestant Unionist who totally abhors the Irish Catholics he disdainfully refers to as “Fenians.” So he’s naturally aghast when he looks closely at his 5-week-old granddaughter and decides that she closely resembles former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. So closely, in fact, that Eric becomes convinced the infant actually is Gerry Adams. To prove his theory, he adorns her face with a tiny pair of eyeglasses and a beard drawn with black marker.
Eric’s bizarre behavior naturally distances his wife (Andrea Irvine) and daughter (Amy Molloy), especially when he acts threateningly toward the baby. Later, while sitting in a park, he’s approached by a menacing man wearing a ski mask. The stranger, Slim (Chris Corrigan), turns out to be an armed Protestant terrorist who mistakes Eric for one of the Fenians he’s assigned to kill. The rambling conversation that ensues includes Slim’s critique of the filmography of Ron Howard and results in Eric proposing that Slim fulfill his assignment by murdering the baby instead.
The black humor proves very funny at times, especially in Eric’s rants about the Irish Catholics whose ranks, he claims, include Barack Obama. Rea delivers them with the expert skill and timing of an insult comic, garnering huge laughs with references to Riverdance and Conan O’Brien. But the merriment curdles as the play descends into darker depths, and the gruesome violence that ensues doesn’t mesh well with the humor preceding it.
Vicky Featherstone’s bare-bones staging, performed on a sparsely decorated set featuring chairs and a beige carpet that eventually becomes stained with blood, lacks the galvanizing theatricality necessary to put the baroque proceedings over. And while the play’s themes of how hatred and intolerance lead to self-destruction are certainly relevant in this increasingly strife-filled political era, the dense discussions of Irish politics will likely prove of less interest to American audiences than Brits.
Playing a character who can transform from sad-sack to vicious misogynist and worse at the drop of a hat, Rea is absolutely riveting throughout. Corrigan is also terrific as the genial would-be killer who proves willing at least to entertain the possibility that a baby could indeed be Gerry Adams, while the three actresses provide solid support in their relatively minor roles.
For all its provocations, Cyprus Avenue is never quite as disturbing as it intends to be. The explicitness of the violence ironically proves counterproductive, leaving little to our imaginations. In this case, less would definitely have been more.
Venue: Public Theater, New York
Cast: Ronke Adekoluejo, Chris Corrigan, Andrea Irvine, Amy Molloy, Stephen Rea
Playwright: David Ireland
Director: Vicky Featherstone
Set and costume designer: Lizzie Clachan
Lighting designer: Paul Keogan
Sound designer: David McSeveney
Production: Abbey Theatre and Royal Court Theatre
Presented by The Public Theater
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