“The Naturalists,” a play by Jaki McCarrick and presented by The Pond Theatre Company is having its world premier at Walkerspace in downtown Manhattan. It is directed by Colleen Clinton & Lily Dorment, both co-founders of the nascent Pond Theatre Company, to whom credit must be paid. With too few companies female-led and even fewer female directors, the New York City theater scene is grateful to these intrepid women.
“The Naturalists” is set in 2010 Ireland, in County Monaghan where Francis (John Keating) and his slovenly brother Billy (Tim Ruddy, in excellent form) co-exist in a crappy caravan on family land (the on-point Scenic Design is by China Shimizu and evocative Lighting Design by Caitlin Smith Rapoport). Eventually, they will fix up “the big house” on the hill, but given eighteen years have gone by and the two are still stuck in the same dilapidated quarters, this seems unlikely. They need help, so Francis hires Josie (Sarah Street) for “light housekeeping.” Ostensibly a dancer but more of a European wanderer, she quickly becomes a fixture in the caravan as well, and both men try unsuccessfully to contain their adoration. Josie is unruffled by their attention. What does bother her is when Billy finally tells her that Francis, now a devotee of nature, going so far as to lead schoolchildren on nature walks, was the mastermind behind an IRA bombing that killed 18 British soldiers, for which he spent 12 years in prison. Additional complications include an unseen mother who has deserted the family, swans, money gone missing and an uninvited former IRA colleague John-Joe (Michael Mellamphy, sufficiently menacing and thug-like) who turns up the temperature in the midst of all the bucolic, rolling hills.
I confess to being a fan of John Keating. I have seen him in at least 25 stage plays in completely different roles and he ranges from the superlative to the sublime. He is incapable of giving a bad performance. Francis, the lead role in this play, is a departure for him. For Keating to go from the sweet, gentle man who has turned his life around with no desire to revisit the past to the “boss” capable of killing, showcases both his emotional and physical range. His voice is a great asset as well: it can be as soft as a lullaby and as stern and deadly as an army commander.
“The Naturalists” has a few structural flaws: the sluggish pace of the first act, clocking in at one hour and 15 minutes, needed to be picked up. The second act veers off in a direction that might make Martin McDonough fans happy, but did not seem to fit with the rest of the play. The character of Josie is the hardest role because it is a thankless role. Sarah Street could not have done any better with what she was given. It is too easy for Josie to move into the brothers’ lives; too easy to become romantically involved with both; too easy for what the ending suggests. Her background, her story, is flimsy. She is not a three-dimensional character; she is more a foil for the brothers’ continuing drama.
As for the musical cues, as much as I appreciate the use of Tom Waits’s “Martha,” easily one of the saddest songs ever written about regret and nostalgia, for those unfamiliar with “Martha” that aspect is lost on them. To name the mother “Martha” and use the Waits song at the beginning of the play and at the end is a miscue. But to use Vaughn Williams’s “The Lark Ascending” was absolutely beautiful and made total sense.
“The Naturalists” has great performances across the board and is a showcase for the talents of John Keating. Shakespeare’s kings are waiting for you, Mr. Keating. I hope the New York City theater scene takes note.