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Theatre in Review: Cyprus Avenue (The Public Theater)

Stephen Rea. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

It's a strange experience to see a fine actor giving a tour-de-force performance in a play that goes irreparably off the rails, but such is the singular experience of Cyprus Avenue. Stephen Rea spares himself nothing in his portrait of Eric, a devout Orangeman of Ulster, whose loathing of Catholicism, Irish nationalism, and multicultural society causes him to unravel, violently. David Ireland's play aims for Swiftian satire but settles for being a grim, exploitative cartoon, more interested in rattling the audience's nerves than in making any cogent psychological or political points.

After the briefest of prologues, we see Eric with a therapist named Bridget (Ronke Adekoluejo, making good use of her poker face and unemotional delivery). Eric seems completely out of it, and, instantly, one has a sense that something has happened that isn't being discussed. Bridget carefully explains that she is there to help him "untangle our insides," and wonders if he has any questions. Well, he does, but he's a little worried that it might be stupid. "There are no stupid questions here," she says. So he plunges in: "Why are you a n---er," he asks?

The silence that prevails at the Public's LuEsther Hall after that line is thick enough to spread on toast. When Bridget tries to explain to him that the term is unacceptable, he adds, "If I can say in my defense, I did grow up in Belfast. I never met a black person until I was forty-seven. Is it okay to say 'black'?" Having established Eric somewhere on the continuum between clueless and a shocking racist, the playwright, David Ireland, doubles down. When Bridget makes the mistake of referring to him as Irish, he responds with an aria of aggrievement. "The last thing I am is Irish," he insists. He adds that his grandfather died in World War I, his father in World War II. He works for "Her Majesty's Government," he flies the Union flag, and talks about "the relentless campaign of genocide conducted by the IRA against the Protestant people of Ulster over the course of three decades....I am exclusively and non-negotiably British."

Having established Eric as a symbol of everything that is retrograde in today's Northern Ireland, the author sends him down the rabbit hole of the allegedly satiric plot. Julie, Eric's daughter, has given birth to a baby girl. When he reluctantly picks up the infant, to his horror he sees the face of Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein. So obsessed does he become with this idea that, before long, he has drawn a beard on the baby's face and added a pair of glasses. You can imagine how well this goes over with Julie and Bernie, Eric's wife -- especially when Eric accuses Julie of being Adams' lover. And, as he tells Bernie, "Somebody needs to tell that Fenian baby bastard that this is our f--king house!"

It's possible, I suppose, that this premise played better in its original incarnation -- this is a co-production of the Abbey and Royal Court Theatres -- and maybe an Irish audience might find some dark laughter in it. At the Public the other night, it was received with the silence of the grave, with, at best, a nervous titter here and there. It doesn't get better, as Eric puts forth one offensive and unfunny theory after another. He suggests that Catholics willingly turn over their children to priests for sexual abuse. ("Many people at some level enjoy seeing their progeny tortured.") He informs Bridget that she is "Africa," which he characterizes, in part, as "happy people dancing." He claims he has been visited by an angel representing the Ulster Volunteer Force. He wonders if the "point of Irish Republicanism" is "to traumatize us as a people to the extent that we have to surrender, or we'll lose our minds." (He does get a laugh with an easy joke about Riverdance and offers a not-bad version of the old chestnut "If You're Irish Come into the Parlor.") And he manages to work some homophobia into a story about a night spent with Irishmen in a London bar.

A little bit of this goes a long, long way, and listening to Eric rant and rave, expressing at such length his free-floating loathing of everything modern becomes an increasingly wearying experience. I gather that we are meant to find this amusing -- the program notes call it "wickedly funny" -- but there's no wit in this thuggery and it quickly becomes tedious. We never get any sense of what drives Eric's devotion to Britain; instead, he incessantly repeats his hatred of all things Irish, in terms that become increasingly grating. Rea works harder than you can imagine trying to lend some variety and emotional complexity to his character's harangues but watching Cyprus Avenue is rather like being buttonholed at a party by some loud, obnoxious drunk who won't shut up.

Even less amusing is Eric's encounter with Slim, a Protestant terrorist whom he hires to dispense with Julie's baby. This sets the stage for the blood-soaked finale, which climaxes in an act that is clearly meant to shock an audience that has been laughing all night long; in actuality, it is a repellant conclusion to one of the dreariest evenings that the Public has presented in a long, long time.

If Vicky Featherstone's direction seems to flail continually, especially in its reach for laughter, it's hard to imagine anyone doing much better with this material. As Bernie and Julie, Andrea Irvine and Amy Molloy are required only to stand around, acting shocked and outraged -- which, of course, begs the question of how they have never before noticed that they have been keeping house with such an appalling example of humanity. Still, they're both pros. Chris Corrigan does his best with Slim, the wacky terrorist, but it's an uphill battle.

Like her design for Yerma, recently seen at Park Avenue Armory, Lizzie Clachan's set places the audience on two sides of a sleekly anonymous set; it's a strategy that works well enough, especially since Paul Keogan's lighting adds a fair amount of visual variety. Clachan's costumes are okay, as is David McSeveney's sound design, which makes use of the sort of dreadful-sounding chords meant to indicate that tragedy is in the offing.

Cyprus Avenue goes into the ledger as a tragically missed opportunity, because of its leaden take on a real situation, namely the insularity and prejudice of Northern Irish culture. It's a situation that is becoming increasingly untenable, what with the slowly unfolding Brexit and Northern Ireland clinging to traditions that now seem out of date even in England. (Abortion remains illegal there and same-sex marriage has yet to happen, although civil partnership is available.) It's a situation that calls for a rapier wit, not the bludgeon that is administered here. -- David Barbour

(26 June 2018)

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