The Off-Broadway Irish Repertory Theatre has been handsomely staging the works of Irish and Irish-American classic and contemporary playwrights since 1988 and, me boyo, nobody does it better. In case you’re unaware of how many great actors you may never heard of— actors who are persistently performing brilliantly at the Irish Rep’s permanent home in Chelsea— go out of your way to see them in plays that usually deal with matters of consequence like life and death.
Another plus: The Irish Rep’s founders, Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly, are still in alive, kicking and helming as, respectively, director and star, of their current production: the seductive Sean O’Casey masterpiece, Juno and the Paycock, which runs the gamut from hilarity to heartbreak in a milieu constricted by both financial and emotional poverty, as well as suppressed rage at the insignificance of their lives as filtered through church-influenced godly standards of purity.
O’Casey’s impeccable ear for the Irish vernacular gradually transforms the semi-stereotypical working class tenement dwellers from sources of smug amusement to trapped-by-circumstance individuals who tear your heart out. It’s hard to decide who was more destructive of the young people of Ireland: British soldiers paid to kill them or over-principled IRA commandants with no qualms about executing anyone who eschews their craving for triumph or strays from their ownership of righteousness.
Be that as it may, Act I is laugh out loud funny. The paycock, anti-hero Captain Jack Boyle, is a drunkard who’s a magician at coordinating his debilitating leg pains with the threat of any job offer and whose honorary, self-bestowed title is derived from himself working at sea long enough to look up at the sky from the deck and ask “What is the stars?”
His wife Juno is the household goddess, a conventional wife still treating her husband as lord and master even though she’s the sole family wage earner. Their unemployed daughter Mary is a shallow, “principled” true believer, following the union’s call to strike over the firing of someone about whom Mary had never uttered a good word.
Their incapacitated son Johnny, whose arm was blown off during a previous bombing, suffers from a blend of PTSD and well-deserved guilt. The boil on the Boyles is the Captain’s butty, Joxer Daly, a leech who flatters and follows Boyle from bar to bar, cadging drinks from him. To paraphrase Joxer, “It’s a darlin’ play, a darlin’ play.” Joxer has never found anything— except maybe Juno— that he didn’t find darlin’.
The family’s prospects improve after Mr. Bentham, a careless— both legally and sexually — young solicitor, informs Captain Boyle that he’s the heir of half of the estate of a distant relative, which means enough future cash to launch the Boyles on a borrowing and buying spree. Even better, Bentham’s attentions to Mary allow the Boyles to believe that Bentham is Mary’s husband-in-waiting who’ll take their daughter with him to a better, more prosperous life.
Bentham’s wording of the will makes it worthless, dashing the family’s fantasies and fortunes. His disappearance precedes the carting away of their down payment furniture. What’s left behind is a pregnant Mary— hardly a surprise— and a Juno, who’s finally had enough, leaving the Captain and Joxer together forever, a darlin’ fate they both deserve.
The Irish Rep’s production is both elegant and basic. Charlotte Moore’s direction brings out the best in even actors with minor roles. J. Smith-Cameron’s Juno is awe-inspiring— a worthy adversary to Ciarán O’Reilly’s Captain Jack Boyle and John Keating’s insidious Joxer Daly.
David Toser’s costumes are perfect. Juno’s dress, the epitome of genteel poverty, looks like it’s ironed every night and worn every day.
O’Casey’s Irish at Irish Rep are well worth visiting. My companion, a Bruce Willis fan, planned to nap through Juno. Imagine his surprise when he stayed awake for the entire three acts and left the theater immensely moved.