By Stan Friedman
The January theater season is spooky. On Broadway, the ghost of a nagging mother haunts her son during a relentlessly funny running gag in the newly-opened Honeymoon in Vegas. And now, in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s troubled production of Da, a man tries to lay his father to rest, but his dad’s ghost refuses to cooperate. You can get a front row seat at Da for the same price as a seat in the nosebleed section of Honeymoon but, at least at this point, $70 is too much to pay for a play that has yet to find its footing.
The production seems like a great idea, on paper: A veteran cast of Irish actors in a revival of the 1978 Tony winner for best play. But playwright Hugh Leonard was perhaps too involved in telling his own life story and too in love with his own theatrical devices to deliver much of a cohesive message, and the two leads have yet to find their emotional centers. Their failure to fully connect with the audience, in a play that asks us to care for two opposing protagonists, makes for a long and plodding night.
The play begins in Dublin, in 1968, where we find Charlie (Irish Rep co-founder Ciarán O’Reilly), a literal teetotaler, putting on the kettle in his childhood home, having just attended the funeral of his da (Paul O’Brien). Soon enough, his father’s spirit begins wandering the house, at first invisible to Charlie, but then moving in and out of his memories as the play travels back in time, visiting mildly important points of his youth. It’s like being transported into a dream hosted by the Ghost of Christmas Blah. We learn all we need to in the first half hour, and with no growth or change from the characters, the action just seems repetitive. Charlie was an adopted child, a fact that is neither dwelt upon nor vital (but an autobiographical fact of Leonard’s). Da was not a great man. In fact, he is called an ignorant man. His admiration for Hitler (yes, really) and his pleasure in singing mindless ditties bear this out. O’Brien, as directed by Charlotte Moore (the Irish Rep’s other co-founder), finds little to make Da lovable, but he is neither demonic toward his family, nor a mess in the way of, say, the mother in the greatest of memory plays, The Glass Menagerie. He’s just a little irritating and a tad arrogant. Indeed, Charlie suffered nothing more scarring at Da’s hands than being interrupted while trying to seduce the town’s notoriously easy lass (Nicola Murphy), and as an adult he manages just fine, living in London with a family of his own. O’Reilly plays Charlie like a man who can’t shake a bothersome cold, and we never get to see any interaction between him and own wife and child, robbing us again of any emotional connection.
The supporting cast is also a mixed bag. Fiana Toibin is workmanlike as Charlie’s mother, put-upon and long suffering, yet caring. She teaches Charlie the confusing lesson that “love turned upside down” is love nonetheless. The usually entertaining John Keating has some trouble playing Charlie’s childhood pal, Oliver. Oliver has an odd vocal quirk, repeatedly using the phrase “Oh now,” as he speaks, and Keating’s is noticeably unhappy as he goes about trying to find fresh ways to utilize the phrase. Faring better is Adam Petherbridge as the young Charlie, full of youthful energy and well-drawn awkwardness. And Sean Gormley is an enjoyable Mr. Drumm, the pragmatic businessman who seems to have all the best lines, like “You’ll amount to nothing until you learn to say no. No to jobs, no to girls, no to money. Otherwise, by the time you’ve learned to say no to life you’ll find you’ve swallowed half of it.”
James Morgan’s scenic design is in keeping with the fine sets one has come to expect from the Irish Rep., though at times it also shows off the flawed direction of Moore. Late in the play, Charlie literally locks the door against the memory of his father, but the ghost simply meanders around the doorframe, breaks the fourth wall and continues on with his son. It’s a moment that should have drawn gasps for its cleverness, but by then the audience had already succumbed to an evening of yawns.
Da – By Hugh Leonard; Directed by Charlotte Moore.
WITH: Sean Gormley (Drumm), Kristin Griffith (Mrs. Prynn), John Keating (Oliver), Nicola Murphy (Mary Tate), Paul O’Brien (Da), Ciarán O’Reilly (Charlie), Adam Petherbridge (Young Charlie) and Fiana Toibin (Mother).
Scenic design by James Morgan; Costume design by Linda Fisher; Lighting design by Michael Gottlieb; Sound design by Zach Williamson; Stage manager, Pamela Brusoski; at the DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street, 212-727-2737, Through March 8th, www.irishrep.org, Running time: 2 hours.