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Theatre in Review: On Blueberry Hill (59E59)/Blue Ridge (Atlantic Theater)

Top: Niall Buggy. Photo: Patrick Redmond. Bottom: Marin Ireland, Kristolyn Lloyd. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.

Two recently opened plays focus on criminal punishment or rehab; oddly, it is the lifers of On Blueberry Hill who find a strange sort of redemption, while, in Blue Ridge, the participants in a warm and fuzzy, partly faith-based rehab program all too often end up in a hell of their own making. Each play has its gripping moments, provided you don't find yourself stuck in certain plot holes.

On Blueberry Hill, from the noted Irish theatre company Fishamble, throws together a pair of inmates in a Dublin prison and lets them reveal how they got to this godforsaken place. Because the playwright is Sebastian Barry, the dialogue is smoothly literary, as always a pleasure to the ear. The middle-aged PJ recalls how, as a boy, he burst into tears at the news of John Kennedy's assassination -- never mind that he had no idea who Kennedy was. (His mother's distress was enough.) He describes how his mother would drag him off to "Maison Prost" for a "French schoolboy haircut," adding wryly, "Mr. Prost's family had been in Ireland for a hundred years. He'd probably never set foot in his native country. And she [PJ's mother] had certainly never been to France to be observing the haircuts of schoolboys. But the name alone inspired her." He recounts how soccer was banned in his school, because the priests associated it with England: "Rugby, that well-known game of Celtic origin," he adds, scoffing. And, with little fuss, he introduces the subject of the fellow seminarian with whom he fell in love, detailing their trips to a largely deserted island where they could experience a few hours of privacy.

The older Christy has had a rougher time of it, having seen, at an early age, his father stabbed to death by his "daft cousin." Without a family breadwinner, he leaves school and gets work as a caddy, racking up among his clients the great Irish actor Barry Fitzgerald as a client. After a stint working construction in the UK, he returns home, marries the lovely Christine (who, he says, shone "like the little lighthouse at the end of the pier"), and raises a family.

All of this is rendered with effortless grace -- but, because this is a Sebastian Barry play, one steels oneself for an evening of dueling monologues; as a playwright, Barry is a great novelist (an art form in which he has won acclaim). Not this time, however: Before long, it becomes evident that PJ and Christy are linked by a pair of crimes -- an inexplicable, wildly impulsive murder and a shockingly cruel act of revenge. This is the point where On Blueberry Hill is transformed from a piece of prose for the stage to a potentially electric drama.

The charge is dimmed a bit, however, by Barry's decision to land PJ and Christy in the same cell, a decision that would surely never be allowed -- not even at the hands of a willful and reckless prison guard, as happens here -- for the very good reason that the two men have cause to wish each other dead. Even more strangely -- and, surprisingly, with some success -- the playwright makes the argument that they come to recognize that only they can understand and care for each other.

If not played with total conviction, On Blueberry Hill could come off as shamelessly contrived. But, under the direction of Jim Culleton, it's easy to travel with these characters along their occasionally implausible -- if often gorgeously described -- journey. As PJ, David Ganly underplays expertly, describing his beloved young friend as "a perfectly normal young Irish boy except he was shining with beauty," yet detailing his crime with chilling detachment and a scathing honesty that will brook no excuses. Even more bracing is the moment when he is forced to face Christy "and in that moment I realized it had been a long time since I had considered another man's pain." Ganly is a regular presence in Dublin and London; let's hope he adds New York to his itinerary.

The great Niall Buggy, his voice laced with a skepticism that can cut glass, fell trees, and scrape the innocence off any observation, is equally marvelous as Christy. He is especially delicious when describing his less-than-romantic first meeting with his wife. (He was lying in an alley. She found him, saying, "Would you get up, get up, whoever you are? You can't be lying there like a cat.") He also offers a startling rendition of the song of the title, pouring into it all the rage and desperation and exaltation of his heart. Both men handle the climax, which features an act both violent and exultant, with remarkable commitment. The simple set design, by Sabine Dargent (who also did the costumes), lighting by Mark Galione, and sound by Denis Clohessy are all sufficient to the occasion. On balance, On Blueberry Hill is worth it for the transcendent performances, dialogue that often approaches poetry, and the striking notion that hatred and bitter regret, under the right conditions of suffering, can be transmuted into love.

If On Blueberry Hill requires a single suspension of disbelief, Blue Ridge asks the audience to swallow two implausible twists, which may be one too many. Abby Rosebrock's play examines the inhabitants of a rehab center -- partly state-funded and partly attached to an evangelical church -- in North Carolina. Some of the residents -- the word "inmate" is verboten -- like Wade and Cherie, are there voluntarily to deal with addictions, to opioids and booze, respectively. Then there's Alison, a high school teacher whose advanced placement English program is a constant award-winner -- but who, in a moment of rage, took an ax to the car owned by her lover, the school's married principal. She is here in lieu of house arrest. When asked to provide a Bible passage appropriate to her situation, Alison responds with two Carrie Underwood hits: the relatively pious "Jesus Take the Wheel" and "Before He Cheats," a revenge ballad that may have put certain auto-destroying ideas into Alison's head.

Although the group's meetings often seem more like coffee klatches than therapy for men and women who are psychologically on the ropes, Rosebrock's characters are an engaging lot, each of them determined to make something out of the mess of his or her life. Then there's Alison, who has ticking-bomb qualities and who, charmingly but resolutely, refuses to play along, following her own idiosyncratic path to recovery. (She also develops an instant dislike to Hern, the laconic pastor who runs the program in collaboration with the feisty, motherly Grace.) Instead of opening up before the group and facing her problems, she launches into her patented Blanche DuBois imitation, uses her liberal arts education to firmly put down a new resident, and generally bosses everyone around. As played by Marin Ireland, Alison attempts to control the lava flow of her anger with a variety of strategies: jokes, changes of topic, sentences cut off at the midway point, an entire repertoire of physical feints and comic grimaces, plus a laugh that is meant to be warm and inclusive but instead sets off alarm bells whenever heard.

At first, Blue Ridge appears to be headed nowhere in particular in terms of drama, but then Rosebrock tosses a couple of curveballs into the narrative: First, Alison announces that, having originally been barred from teaching, she has managed to get herself reinstated at her old school, where she will be working under the ex-lover whose vehicle she destroyed. The playwright tries to explain this away, noting that the male victim, trying to save his marriage, worked to hush the incident up -- but, really, is there a school board in the known universe that would allow this tinderbox situation? Next, she involves two of the characters in a nascent romance that is a flagrant violation of the rules for both parties -- a development that inflames Alison into taking action that spells disaster for everyone. If Blue Ridge had contented itself with one of these questionable developments, Rosebrock might have gotten away with it. Taken together, however, the entire enterprise begins to acquire the faintly lurid dimensions of soap opera. It doesn't help that a crucial bit of information, intended to reveal the root of Alison's agony, is held back until about two minutes before curtain time. By that point, one's patience with her is likely to have run out.

Taibi Magar's direction neatly exposes each of the undercurrents flowing underneath the group's apparent harmony, and Ireland gets solid support from Kyle Beltran as the nerdy, yet flirty, Wade, and Kristolyn Lloyd, doing some of her best work yet, as Cherie, who is willing to take responsibility for driving herself off an emotional cliff. Nicole Lewis is fine as Grace, especially when, to her horror, she discovers that crucial rules have been broken, threatening the program's existence. But Chris Stack has little to work with in the severely underwritten role of Hern, whose only function here is to be a straw target for Alison. Similarly, Peter Mark Kendall brings much presence to Cole, a newcomer recently released from a mental institution, who exists largely to serve as a foil for Alison in a climactic scene.

Magar's design team creates just the right atmosphere, beginning with the banal, utilitarian meeting room designed by Adam Rigg, which, near the end, opens up to reveal a stunning forest vista. Amith Chandrashaker's lighting, Sarah Laux's costumes, and Mikaal Sulaiman's original music (in the bluegrass style) and sound design, the latter featuring a hit parade of men-are-trouble anthems by the likes of Underwood and Dolly Parton, are all apt contributions.

Ireland is, to my mind, one of the few unmissable leading ladies in New York, and her efforts go a long way toward making Alison into a fascinating, troubling creature. But Blue Ridge often rambles, to its detriment; sometimes it snaps sharply into focus and sometimes it seems as unfocused as Alison's rage. In this case, the action is dogged by too many nagging questions. -- David Barbour

(15 January 2019)

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