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Theatre in Review: Maz and Bricks (Fishamble/59E59)

Eva O'Connor, Ciaran O'Brien. Photo: Lunaria.

For a long time, before it takes a darker, more melodramatic turn, Maz and Bricks appears to be a romantic comedy that unfolds en route to an abortion-rights demonstration; I'm guessing you haven't seen that one before. The lights come up on the title characters, sitting on a Dublin tram. She (Maz) is, apparently, sketching something. He (Bricks) is on the phone, gabbing loudly about his sexual adventure of the night before, generally making a jackass of himself. Not lacking for grandiosity, he assumes she is sketching him. After a couple of acid denials, she reveals her handiwork, a sign saying, "Justice for Einar." It's a reference to a nineteen-year-old who died, Maz says, "because she needed an abortion and didn't have access to one." The comment alarms Bricks, who tries to shush her; looking around at their superannuated fellow passengers, he says, "You have to respect the OAPs."

It's one of the less-promising meet-cute moments in recent memory, and, for a while, it seems as if Maz and Bricks are permanently consigned to separate tracks. He heads off to pick up his little daughter, Yasmine, for a trip to the zoo; as it happens, however, he has -- only the night before, quite by accident -- slept with the cousin of his ex-wife, and the latter is furious about it. Thanks to rapidly escalating hostilities, a routine day of visitation turns into an emotional donnybrook from which Bricks flees in retreat. Meanwhile, Maz, at the demonstration, has an unsettling encounter with a figure from her past; further stunned by the presence of angry counterdemonstrators, she loses control. Bricks, wandering around, stumbles upon her, just saving her from big trouble. "I was exercising my right to protest," insists Maz. "You were about to stone a granny!" snaps Bricks.

Following this, the abortion issue is put on hold while Maz and Bricks roam the city, getting to know each other and falling into something that might pass for love, at least until the ghosts of their pasts intrude. As often happens in two-handers about lonely souls, both are nursing deep psychic wounds -- Maz's abortion is linked to a terrible incident of abuse and Bricks is facing the first anniversary of a suicide that shattered his family -- that send them into defensive crouches any time intimacy rears its head.

There's good news: The playwright, Eva O'Connor, has gifted her characters with colorful, candid, and often slashing speeches -- and, line by line, Maz and Bricks offers definite pleasures. On the tram, Maz, riding Bricks' nerves, loudly proclaims, "I love a good abortion, so I do," mockingly adding, "Normally have one in the morning after a nice strong espresso." Bricks' idea of praying to the Blessed Virgin is to announce, "You're lookin' well, Mary up above," before asking for help. Later, describing facing his ex in her moment of incandescent rage, he says, "The anger in Lara's eyes terrifies me. It's the size of two small countries." Maz, who is fed up with dating, notes, "Tinder doesn't feel like anything apart from a cramp in your thumb and death in your soul." Later, zeroing in on the injustice she sees all around her, she says, "I'm just sick of this country's selective memory, its straight-up denial of every bad thing, every life ruined. Every day the church gets pardoned. Every day, men get pardoned. The girl who died yesterday, she'll be forgotten this time next week."

First impressions can be devilishly hard to shake, however; the early scenes of Maz and Bricks fix the characters in one's mind -- in his case, most unflatteringly -- and, as a result, their growing closeness seems to happen by authorial fiat, not because of physical or emotional chemistry. Furthermore, the casual, chatty format can't really bear the weight of the many sorrows -- abuse, betrayal, suicide, alcoholism -- piled on by the playwright. Nor do O'Connor, who plays Maz, or Ciaran O'Brien, as Bricks, seem sufficiently damaged to justify the play's climax, when matters of life and death intrude, not entirely plausibly. "It's a hurt in the bones of me," Maz says, but O'Connor's performance somehow doesn't confirm the point. Given the play's determined rollout of revelations and events designed to bind two strangers over the course of a single afternoon -- to the point of altering each other's lives -- Maz and Bricks often feels like something of a forced march. "This is the kind of thing that happens in films," Bricks says at one point; right, and not necessarily in the better ones.

The script also lurches, inelegantly, between scenes with Maz and Bricks and long monologues of the sort so beloved by modern Irish playwrights, which carry the narrative forward. These lengthy speeches are written as prose, but they have a certain leaden cadence that wears one down. Watching the play repeatedly switch from one mode to another, it's hard not to feel that Maz and Bricks is still in search of its ideal style.

The background for Max and Bricks is the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, which prohibited abortion in Ireland; before the 2018 decision, women were typically forced to go to England for the procedure. Following the vote to legalize same-sex marriage in 2015, it symbolized a final, irretrievable break from the country's Catholic Church-dominated past. It's hard to overestimate how meaningful this event was, and I suspect that Maz and Bricks may play more effectively in front of a hometown crowd. For example, one of Maz's key speeches is a litany of names of those who, over several decades, have died for want of decent prenatal healthcare, unimpeded by church interference. (Perhaps the most egregious example is Sarita Halapannavar, who, Wikipedia notes, was denied a request for an abortion "following an incomplete miscarriage on the grounds that her request would be illegal under Irish law, ultimately resulting her in death from septic miscarriage.") I imagine the names will mean little or nothing to audiences at 59E59.

Jim Culleton's direction might have taken time to probe the characters' inner lives a little more deeply, letting some of their scar tissue show; it's an approach that might have helped militate against the script's slightly prefabricated quality. The overall design package, including Maree Kearns' set and costumes and Sinéad McKenna's lighting, is notably basic, as befits a company that spends much of its time touring. Making the strongest impression is Carl Kennedy's sound design, which includes such effects as tram announcements, crowds at the parade, and ambient noises inside a pub.

Maz and Bricks is part of 1st Irish, the annual festival of contemporary Irish theatre; the production isn't a success, but O'Connor is a real writer, one I imagine we'll be hearing from again. I look forward to that. -- David Barbour

(13 January 2020)

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