Irish Up

I thoroughly enjoyed my kids when they were little, but I find that one of the great joys in my life is not having to censor either myself or my love of the profane, and to share that with them. I know some, possibly many, would consider it lousy parenting, but the kids are hearing it in the lunch line and, truth be told, whenever either of their parents is driving on Michigan roads. They might as well hear cussing a blue streak turned a little more artfully.

And when it comes to mastery of inventive profanity, Martin McDonagh is hard to top. In Bruges is easily on my list of top 10 favorites, and I’ve had great fun watching it with both the 19 and 14 year old. We quote lines at each other: “Harry, it’s an inanimate fucking object.” “YOU’RE an inanimate fucking object!!” Then later, “I’m sorry I called you an inanimate object. . . . I was upset.” HP’s gotten out of some scrapes with that one. He knows the old lady can’t stay mad if she’s laughing.

So when an earlier McDonagh work, The Cripple of Inishmaan, came to town in a production by the Druid and Atlantic Theater Company, I knew I had to bring the kid along. Cripple follows about 10 people in what appears to be a miserable Irish town as Hollywood comes within spitting distance to film The Man of Aran (a real movie, by the way). It’s a play hewn out of the Sean O’Casey school, with irascible and difficult to admire characters who are funny, acrid, and thorny. I may have been alone in being reminded of Larry David’s two shows, but the people on McDonagh’s godforsaken island are every bit as self-absorbed and trapped as David’s urbanites. It’s a raw and very classic form of comedy, where, to paraphrase Walter Kerr, the lips of the mask are pulled back not in a smile, but in a rictus of pain.

Cripple is a good but not great play, and, though nicely cast and wonderfully acted, the production was the same. An overly literal set surprised me a little bit; the play has its share of ambiguities, and they would have made more sense with a more abstract background. It moved at a good clip, but as a farce, it needed a lightning pace. But it’s an early work, and plays are so hard to write; they get my vote for being the toughest form to master. I didn’t feel the need to check the time, the kid thoroughly enjoyed it, and it brought some powerful Irish actors to our slowly thawing corner of America. And now we have a couple of new catch phrases to throw at each other.

Good live theater is rare, and it’s pretty thrilling to see a play done in its original language. Given that Black Swan has revived interest in ballet – how else do you explain the Joffrey selling out at the Detroit Opera House? – maybe someone can do the same thing for plays. As ballet pals James Wolcott and Laura Jacobs have observed, it becomes easy to forgive the insane inaccuracy of a bad movie if it pumps up sales and gives your beloved art form a boost in the arm. Black Swan is Carrie with tutus. I’ll wrack my brain, you wrack yours, and maybe we can figure out the right cult movie to retread as a tale of actors gone mad.

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