“Dublin Carol,” by peerless Irish playwright Conor McPherson, was written three years after an extraordinarily productive period in his young life: in 1997, he wrote the one-man play, “St. Nicholas,” and his masterpiece, “The Weir.” With “Dublin Carol,” now onstage at the Irish Repertory Theatre, McPherson dispensed with the supernatural and went for gritty realism. It works — mostly.
John (Jeffrey Bean) is a middle-aged undertaker who has made a ruin of his life. Sexist, racist, misogynist, alcoholic, he doesn’t have a lot going for him, except a shot out of the nearest Jameson bottle. But it is Christmas Eve, 1999, in Dublin (and the spectacular set, right down to the horse bookends and the brown and yellow patterned couch, is by Scenic Designer Charlie Corcoran), and he has a lot to get off his chest.
The recipient of this rant-cum-confession is twenty-year old Mark (Cillian Hegarty, as good when he is still and listening as he is pushing back against John), an undertaker-in-training who can’t contribute much, except to say he has an air hostess girlfriend whose uniform he dislikes because it makes her legs look big. Other than that, he makes tea, and pours whisky as needed.
A reckoning comes in the shape of Mary (Sarah Street, always terrific), John’s daughter, whom he has not seen in ten years. Her mother is dying of cancer. She wants John to come to the hospital to see her. John is in no shape, physically or mentally, to even think about doing this. But he knows he should. Will he get it together? Or won’t he?
I confess to being a huge fan of McPherson’s, having seen almost everything he’s written many times. But I had not seen “Dublin Carol,” a less well-known play of his, so kudos to the Irish Repertory Theatre for choosing this to begin their fall 2019 season.
McPherson is by his own admission, a monologist, which I like. “Dublin Carol” is no exception, and John has to do an awful lot of telling when it comes to his background, which I had no problem with. John is the victim of an abusive, alcoholic father – and as he relays his story to Mark, this is how he sees himself – as a victim. This winds up being a cautionary tale for Mark: what kind of man not to become. But John as a character lacks specifics. His relationship with Uncle Noel, who is only referred to but is the person who “saved him,” is unclear, and should have been made more of. There are plenty of alcoholic, philandering, family deserter-fathers. John, as written, seems to be an amalgam of generalities.
“Dublin Carol” comes alive when there is conflict between Mark and John; between Mary and John, all beautifully directed by Ciarán O’Reilly. The best thing about McPherson’s plays is that one has no idea how they are going to end. It is always a surprise. He keeps you guessing, almost in suspense, until darkness begins to engulf the theatre.