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Theatre in Review: Dublin Carol (Irish Rep)/Georgia Mertching is Dead (Ensemble Studio Theatre)

Top: Cillian Hegarty, Jeffrey Bean. Photo: Carol Rosegg. Bottom: Diana Oh. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

When it comes to substance abuse, the theatre is currently on a binge. The titles under consideration today make the third and fourth plays to open in the last two weeks on this generally dispiriting topic. While the previously reviewed The White Chip, at 59E59, treats the story of its character's downward slide with a cheeky, brazen humor, and Nothing Gold Can Stay has a newsy immediacy in its focus on the opioid epidemic, Dublin Carol and Georgia Mertching is Dead, like their characters, struggle with the subject of alcoholism, with results that aren't really satisfactory.

Few playwrights understand the corrosive effects of loneliness and the bottle like Conor McPherson. Little wonder, then, that Dublin Carol is a meticulously honest account of a life brought low by whiskey. The play is constructed in three scenes: John, a middle-aged loner, works for a Dublin funeral director. Having destroyed his marriage and family life with his drinking ways, John was discovered in a bar by Noel, who pulled him up out of a stupor and gave him work. Now Noel is in the hospital and John is going about the firm's business aided by Mark, Noel's callow nephew. In the first scene, following a burial on December 24th, John, fearful of being alone, keeps Mark in the firm's office, brewing tea and recounting the story of his descent and eventual rescue. Later, John's daughter Mary shows up, bearing the upsetting news that his wife (and her mother) is dying of cancer and wants to see him one last time; this scene cues an intensive inventory of the wounds John has inflicted on his loved ones. Then Mark, who has made a botch of breaking up with his girlfriend, returns a few hours later, finding John drunk out of his mind and simmering with self-loathing as he waits for Mary to arrive, preparatory to a hospital visit.

In addition to his thorough knowledge of this sordid territory, McPherson provides some revelatory moments. John, talking about the funeral business, says, "You're trying to find the dignity. You're trying to afford people a bit of respect in their last little bit, with their family and the people around them." But it is only a short while later that Mary, with her recall of things John would rather forget, has him on his knees, apologizing for "the whole stinking business" and wishing he had never been born. And it is not long before John is stumbling around the room, denouncing a woman's love as "terribly constant," and recalling with no small disgust the female companion who cared for him in his blackout years: "I followed the trail of breadcrumbs all the way into bed. I was more into the drink than sex, though. She was into neither."

More of a character sketch than a fully realized play, Dublin Carol begins on a forlorn note and slips by degrees into utter desolation. It's such a narrowly focused work, so thoroughly bereft of amusement or even a hint of joy -- to say nothing of dramatic action -- that it is easy to become disengaged. McPherson has created many fine works out of such dark materials but, this time out, there's something a little too studied about John and his misery. That it all unfolds on Christmas suggests a playwright working overtime to hammer home his point.

CiarĂ¡n O'Reilly's production is relentlessly honest, as is the work of all three cast members. Jeffrey Bean captures John's shaky hold on sobriety and the toxic blend of rage and loathing that eat away at his soul; the sight of him staggering around the set, trying to pull down the holiday decorations, is an eloquent testament to the levels to which a man can sink. Sarah Street, fast becomeing an Irish Rep regular, is quietly devastating as Mary, especially when remembering some of her childhood's low points ("There was a row or something and you fell on top of me"). Cillian Hegarty partners sensitively with Bean, fleshing out Mark's shambolic, directionless character, as well his barely held-in-check revulsion at John's sloppy-drunk behavior.

The production design is one the company's typically solid achievements. Charlie Corcoran's cheap wallboard interior, wanly enlivened by twinkle lights and Advent calendars is rendered in an brown palette that is the color of faded hopes. Michael Gottlieb's lighting is an effective blend of weak winter sunlight and practical interior looks. Leon Dobkowski's costumes are appropriately funereal. M. Florian Staab's sound design nicely renders Ryan Rumery's melancholy incidental music and a handful of effects.

The writing is honest, the action (such as it is) equally so, the facts at hand hard to dispute, but Dublin Carol makes clear early on where it is going and never deviates from its mournful path. McPherson has often leavened his dark dramas with wit and a touch of the fantastic; this one is merely depressing.

Emma, Whitney, and Gretchen, the trio of friends at the center of Georgia Mertching is Dead, are all in recovery; as the play begins, they are celebrating Whitney's fifteenth year of sobriety. It would be pleasant to say that such achievements reflect their admirable characters. The reality is rather different, however. Emma, whose relationships generally end in disaster, has a joined a group advocating celibacy. But, she says, "I masturbated for six hours the other day and I was, like, I wonder what this is going to do to my vagina." Gretchen talks at length about her toddler daughter, noting, "Her teacher says she spends half the day in some kind of butt-related activity," offering a detailed account of how the little girl inserts her fist into her own rear end. Whitney announces, "I just ate a pound of Manchego while looking at squirrels and also toy store window displays."

Would you like to go on a lengthy car trip with these three? That's what you get at Georgia Mertching is Dead which has been produced in concert with the Radio Drama Network. The title character, another AA friend and Emma's first sponsor, kills herself, leaving everyone stunned; the three friends set off on a road trip down south to attend the funeral. Gretchen, who is within days of giving birth, infuriates her husband by going against her doctor's advice. Jeremy is also busily shopping for houses in Connecticut, a prospect that alarms the New-York-born-and-bred Gretchen. Emma is circling around her ex-boyfriend, Harlan, a screenwriter with whom she always ends up having degrading sex. Whitney, a chef, having told off her boss and ben fired, is staring bankruptcy in the face, and has decided that she should move in with Gretchen as a kind of adult au pair; of course, she doesn't know about the Connecticut plan.

The rest of the play resembles one of those girls' road-trip movies, with plenty of foul-mouthed gag lines to go along with displays of sisterly solidarity. The entire enterprise is dedicated to the proposition that being an aimless, immature thirty-year-old given is simply adorable. Jeremy, lecturing Gretchen, says, "Sometimes your family has to come first." "How can you say that to me?" she replies, appalled. We also see the monumentally pregnant Gretchen trying to get in and out of the backseat and taking advantage of a system designed to allow her to urinate freely while en route. There's a kind of implied one-upmanship in the friends' trash talk. "I just feel like, if given the chance, I'd definitely fuck Joe Biden," Gretchen muses. "I had unprotected sex in a Fudruckers...in New Jersey," Emma notes. Raising the ante, she adds, "This week I made this pile of trash in my living room and watched it grow until it was a trash monster. I named it Benedict Cumbertrash." By the time she insists, "Thirty is the new twelve," you may feel she is overestimating.

Each of the characters' conflicts is stated, then allowed to fizzle. Gretchen has a screaming argument, in which she makes clear to Jeremy that her girlfriends are more important than her family -- an issue that is cleared up in record time. Whitney diverts them to the trailer park where she was born, so she can talk to the tree that stands in for the mother she didn't know. Later, in the middle of a three-way fight, she complains that the others don't understand "how hard it is for some people, namely me, to live up to their potential." (Oh, I think we do.) While Gretchen and Emma have "a sleepover," donning face masks and saying things like "Do you think if we all saw the inside of a uterus, would some part of us look at it and say, 'That's home?'," Emma -- who keeps declaring her self-hatred -- runs into Harlan, who lures her back to his room to see the three-and-a-half hour rough cut of his film, followed by insults and a bout of rough sex.

Under the direction of Giovanna Sardelli, Catya McMullen's new play is a relentlessly wisecracking affair, rarely rising about the level of eighth grade snark. (She is also the author of Agnes, a much better play about wayward young adults, produced last season.) Among the leading ladies -- Layla Khoshnoudi, Diana Oh, and Claire Siebers -- only the first shows much appeal, possibly because she has relatively little to say. Quincy Dunn-Baker and JD Taylor are solid as Harlan and Jeremy -- although how Jeremy and Gretchen, with their widely divergent life plans, ever got together, is a mystery. Alexis Distler's initially drab-looking set opens up to reveal an imaginative tableau featuring a car interior positioned in front of a highway vista; the rest of the design -- including Sydney Maresca's costumes, Cat Tate Starmer's lighting, and Alemda Beymon's sound - is fine enough.

The play climaxes with Gretchen going into labor -- did you ever doubt it? -- apparently in the middle of the road, after the car has a flat tire. This leads to plenty of screaming and what I think is the first placenta I've ever seen onstage. It gets plenty of handling, but nobody eats it; be thankful for small favors. Following an hour and a half with these ex-drinkers, I needed a cocktail. -- David Barbour

(18 October 2019)

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