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Theatre in Review: The Quare Land (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Peter Maloney. Rufus Collins. Photo: Carol Rosegg

You will look long and hard before you find a protagonist as determinedly eccentric as Hugh Pugh in John McManus' new play; when we first meet the cranky nonagenarian, he is in the bathtub, up to his neck in bubbles, listening to Bobby Darin sing "Splish Splash." Through a series of pulleys, he retrieves bottles of beer from the toilet. The music and the booze are both appropriate, for this is something of an event; as Hugh notes, it's the first bath he has had in four years. To help celebrate, he enjoys playing with two rubber toys -- a sheep and a pig.

He is also off on an epic talking jag, running off at the mouth about his alcoholic brother; his dog, Jesse James, who, he insists, talks to him, although his only topics of conversation are rabbits and cats; an ex-girlfriend, who "turned more stomachs than heads;" and his deep love for the pop star Enya (I'm only scratching the surface here). The quips, stories, and asides flow freely, in as vivid a demonstration of logorrhea as you are likely to encounter in many months of theatregoing.

The unhappy auditor of all this chatter is Rob McNulty, a local builder and a man on a mission. He has already put up a hotel and nine-hole golf course in County Cavan, the corner of Ireland where The Quare Land takes place, and, in order to expand the course to 18 holes, he needs to snap up a five-acre parcel of land that belongs to Hugh. The only problem is, Hugh insists he doesn't own it -- and off he goes with another story, perhaps the one about his friend, Artie, who, working on a construction site in London, was flattened by a falling girder, "so that day came to be known as Pancake Tuesday." Rob insists that the answer to this mystery may lie in Hugh's piles of unopened mail -- and, sure enough, it is found in a letter dated 1932. That's right: The Quare Land would have you believe that Hugh hasn't opened his mail in 80 years.

If The Quare Land was ever going to work, we would have to be beguiled by Hugh and his daft ways, especially his garrulous storytelling style and comically pitiless appraisals of friends and family. But, really, he's a bore and a blowhard, whose boorish behavior quickly becomes wearying. We're also meant to be delighted at the way he haggles with Rob, who is forced to increase his original fair price to absurd amounts, in addition to helping Hugh shave and file his nails, while he spins fantasies of luxurious living and romance with Enya. But Rob isn't some trickster, trying to cheat Hugh; he's an earnest, hardworking guy who, for his efforts, is treated like a fool and a chisler. After 20 minutes or so of watching Hugh behave like the world's oldest spoiled brat, claustrophobia set in and I began to feel I might be trapped with him forever.

It certainly doesn't help that, under the direction of CiarĂ¡n O'Reilly, Peter Maloney plays Hugh on a single note of bluster, shouting out line after line until you're ready to beg for mercy. The actor earns a few laughs up front, but his delivery is so relentless and unvaried that it becomes an active irritant. Clearly, the actor and director gambled that, by doubling down on Hugh's most appalling characterstics, they were building a comically outrageous character; it's a losing bet. In an early front-runner for most thankless role of the season, Rufus Collins is made to stand around, trying to get a word in edgewise, until, after one humiliation too many, he decides it's time for a little payback. It's a waste of a fine actor.

Much better is Charlie Corcoran's set, a farmhouse exterior on a turntable that spins to reveal the spectacle of Hugh in his bath; it's a witty picture of rural dissipation and is far more amusing than anything in the play. Because Hugh spends the entire play in the bath, David Toser was required to design only one costume, for Rob, but it feels right for the character. Michael Gottlieb's lighting and the sound design, by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab, are both dependably solid.

But Hugh Pugh is the whole show here and unless you're totally taken with his ten-ton blarney, you're going to spend the evening eying the exit. Without giving too much away, I will add that Hugh eventually meet the fate he deserves, but it comes too late to provide any real satisfaction. -- David Barbour

(2 October 2015)

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