By Stanford Friedman
Two characters trapped in a metaphorical purgatory always makes for a memorable evening of theater. From Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to Shepard’s True West to Nwandu’s Pass Over, a duo caught in inescapable angst, whether brought on by poor choices or uncontrollable circumstances, never fails to please. Kevin Barry’s 2017 one-act at the Irish Rep, Autumn Royal, if lacking the depth of those lengthier works, nonetheless succeeds in delivering the disquieting goods of hopelessness, along with a bonus dose of family turmoil.
May (Maeve Higgins) and Timmy (John Keating) are thirty-something siblings who literally cannot get out from under their father. They spend most of their day in the small, bare living room of their Cork home while papa, in the bedroom above, quite sickly but not dying anytime soon, continually falls from his bed, sending bits of the ceiling onto their heads. Caretakers who can barely take care of themselves, the two while away the hours making fun of passers-by, or delving into flashback remembrances of the days before their mum flew the coup. Timmy looks to the future, though the biggest pipe dream he can muster involves moving to Australia to work in finance. May dwells in the past. “I remember everything,” is her constant decree, and very little of what she recalls is cheerful, especially where it concerns their mother’s departure. But even the happy thoughts come with a cringe. As they take turns imagining how dashing their parents must have been in their heyday, Timmy crushes the joyful moment with a purely tragic observation, “They could have had magnificent children.”
Contemporary dark comedies, especially contemporary Irish dark comedies, have taught that when kids plot to get free from their elders, the plan ultimately involves a lifeless body being dragged from the house. But Barry, in this, the first piece he’s written for the stage, flips the script. When May and Timmy feel pangs of guilt and suffer from the results of their actions, it is because they tried to do the right thing by moving their father into a nursing home. Granted, when that plan fails spectacularly and they acknowledge the seemingly eternal nature of their plight, they do consider patricidal options. But, as May wearily realizes, “I don’t think I have it in me Tim…coz I’d fucken know by now if I had.”
The window May and Timmy once looked out of to mock their neighbors ultimately becomes the window the neighbors peer into to make fun of them. The fact that their father used to sell aluminum window frames sweetens the irony, and with their mother occasionally roaming by to get a glimpse through the glass, Barry creates a family tree with decidedly twisted roots: a father physically there but otherwise gone and a mother who left but didn’t. The window conceit is neat. Less clear is the reasoning behind the visual and sound effects of a washing machine that alerts the audience whenever a flashback is about to spin towards them. Though it is called for in the script it is imagery that goes wholly unexplained.
Keating, he of the wild hair and wilder eyes, is an Irish Rep favorite and turns in another fine performance here, finding the right moments of understated melancholy behind Timmy’s optimistic facade. Higgins, in what is apparently her US stage debut and in a role that Barry wrote with her in mind, makes good use of her comedian chops to bring a vibrant edginess to May’s dour days. As directed by Irish Rep co-founder Ciarán O’Reilly, the two are angry at their shared circumstances but not terribly peeved at each other, which is a bit of a let down against what Barry seems to have in mind. The only thing juicer than two characters trapped in purgatory would be those two characters at each other’s throat.
Autumn Royal – Written by Kevin Barry, directed by Ciarán O’Reilly.
WITH: Maeve Higgins (May) and John Keating (Timmy).
Set design by Charlie Corcoran, costume design by China Lee, lighting design by Michael Gottlieb, original music and sound design by Ryan Rumery, sound design by Hide Nakajo, projection design by Dan Scully and properties by Deirdre Brennan. The Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage at The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W 22nd St., 212.727.2737, https://irishrep.org/show/2021-2022-season/autumn-royal/. Through November 21. Running time: 70 minutes. Masks and proof of vaccination required.