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Theatre in Review: Jimmy Titanic (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Colin Hamell. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Is it possible that a piece running only seventy-five minutes can be overstuffed? I submit as evidence Jimmy Titanic. The playwright, Bernard McMullan, works so many angles on the story of the sinking of a certain famous ship that this solo show finally goes overboard, weighed down by a superfluity of characters and situations. It makes for quite a workout for actor Colin Hamell, who plays a score of characters, including the Angel Gabriel, St. Peter, and God. That last statement will give you a clue as to the author's peculiar intentions, which juxtapose stark drama with fey comedy, often to perplexing effect.

The title character is Jimmy Boylan, a shipbuilder from Belfast who is part of the "guarantee gang," a group of men who built the Titanic and signed on to the maiden voyage, keeping the furnaces stoked. Jimmy is there with his best friend, Tommy Mackey, another member of the gang. As Jimmy declares up front, neither he nor Tommy survived the Titanic's sinking; Jimmy is speaking to us from heaven, where, by his own account, he has made quite a name for himself. As long as he sticks to the events of that terrible night, Jimmy Titanic makes for gripping viewing. The facts continue to stun: The ship left harbor with six thousand tons of coal, delivered into the furnaces by one hundred seventy firemen, aided by seventy trimmers, who kept the firemen well stocked with fuel. "Two hundred forty men worked below in the stokeholds," Jimmy says. "Only a quarter of them survived. Of the eighty lads working that night on the eight-to-midnight shift, just twelve made it out." Even now, one has to wonder how the ship could have set sail without enough lifeboats to save everyone on board -- what were they thinking? Certain episodes chill one to the bone: Jimmy recalls an Italian father rushing the line with his wife and children; when he refuses the order to fall back into place, he is shot to death. His family tearfully gathers around his body while the evacuation continues. (Despite the many film versions, which tend to focus on the wealthier travelers, Jimmy makes the point that the Titanic "was primarily an emigrant ship," most of whom never made it near the lifeboats.)

McMullan creates some lively and unusual situations, many of them concerned with the far-reaching social and political implications of the Titanic's loss. Jimmy and Tommy, escaping to the top deck, meet John Jacob Astor and his friend, the novelist Jacques Futrelle; they have seen their women safely to the lifeboats and are well aware that they will not survive -- so they sit down with Jimmy and Tommy for some brandy and a chat. Meanwhile, in New York, the editor of the Times, apprised of what is happening in the North Atlantic, rips apart his front page, scraping together all the available details to get the scoop of a lifetime. (Some of the facts he prints are educated guesses that, luckily for him, turn out to be true.) The Lord Mayor of Belfast, addressing the workers in his city's shipyard -- which employed no fewer than fourteen thousand men -- says, "Let the first and only words from your mouths be 'tragic accident -- iceberg'," lest the crucial shipbuilding industry be harmed by this calamitous event. He lays out his thinking thusly: "Shipbuilding is our trump card. This is what will keep home rule from these shores. And we all know what home rule will mean. The ruination of Ulster as we know it."

Then again, far too much of Jimmy Titanic is concerned with Jimmy's antics in heaven, where he hangs out with the Angel Gabriel. (In one of the more amusing bits, Jimmy, egged on by Gabriel, greets a new dispatch of heaven-bound "Holy Joes" while sporting devil horns and a pitchfork, shocking this pious crew with the news that they will "spend eternity among the fires.") We hear how Gabriel shakes down the newly dead for their money and jewelry. God, who acts and talks like a mobster, shows up to deliver his "policy on disasters," adding, "It can't always be sweetness and light. Let's call it a bit of weeding...keep things fresh in the garden." We also have to hear about Jimmy's online dating experiences in the afterlife and why he is unwilling to commit to just one young lady: "You just need to be careful. Up here in heaven, forever is a long time."

These cutesy astral-plane comedy routines are jarringly out of sync with the passages focused directly on the Titanic disaster; worse, there is no way to weld these disparate elements into anything like a coherent whole. As a result, the evening coasts on the skill of Hamell, who brings his considerable presence and knack for quick-sketch characterizations to bear on the proceedings. (If nothing else, the production should serve as an effective calling card for the actor, who runs a theatre company in Boston and has worked extensively in Ireland.) But even he can't keep Jimmy Titanic from feeling tediously overextended, despite the brief running time. As it is, the director, Carmel O'Reilly, could have persuaded Hamell to tone it down a bit; particularly in the later sequences, he comes on too strong for the Irish Rep's tiny downstairs studio theatre.

Jimmy Titanic looks great, thanks to Michael Gottlieb's set, which depicts a couple of ship's walls covered in the rivets that were Jimmy's handiwork; Gottlieb's lighting blends a variety of white looks with saturated color washes to effectively convey the play's varied levels of reality. No sound designer is credited, although there are quite a few sound effects. Jimmy Titanic has its moments, but overall, it is a leaky dramatic vessel, overloaded with ideas, few of which get fully realized. As a result, it rides a little too low in the water for its own good. -- David Barbour

(6 February 2018)

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