Theater is one of the live arts, but you would barely know it from Amaryllis Theatre Company’s sobering production of celebrated Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s Dublin Carol . It’s hard to wholeheartedly recommend this tale of an undertaker with one foot in the grave, but given the ticket price is less than the average movie, it may still be worth a visit. At the very least, it’s a stark contrast to the manically cheery shows that appear on the scene this time of year like elves brandishing great glittery enemas of Christmas spirit.
However, the production veers a bit too hard in the opposite direction. Dublin Carol is a densely written play that requires careful listening, and while the staging thankfully avoids sentimentality, Mimi Kenney Smith’s over-exacting direction and deadly slow pacing are an energy suck.
The play is set on Christmas Eve in the parlor/office of a Dublin undertaker. The owner is sick in the hospital, but his employee John (James Schlatter), who has a room at the residence, is holding down the fort with apprentice Mark (Matt Mancuso), his employer’s 20-year-old nephew. The two have just finished up a young addict’s funeral, returning to the parlor for a spot of tea and conversation.
A one-sided conversation, it turns out. John is quite the talker, and the play, which runs 90 minutes in three acts, consists mostly of him talking about the past—or what he can remember of it. John is an alcoholic, and though he says he has his demons under control, the regularity with which he tips a bottle of Jameson into his mug indicates otherwise. Mark’s uncle rescued a homeless, friendless John from the streets of Dublin, giving him a job and a place to live. John’s now functional, but, as any alcoholic can tell you, he’s playing a losing game and knows the bottle will again lead him to ruin.
It’s easy to draw parallels between Dublin Carol and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol , and not just the titles. Although this script lacks the touch of the supernatural shared by Christmas Carol and many of McPherson’s finest plays, both involve men confronted with the past, present and future consequences of their selfish choices—in John’s case, the effects his drinking had on his one-time wife and two children, whom he hasn’t seen in a decade. His daughter Mary, played by Caitlin Antram, calls on him like a ghost of Christmas past in the second act, and the two are like strangers.
Unlike Dickens, McPherson doesn't offer redemption or forgiveness; it’s clear that John will not magically become “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city knew” as a result of one Christmas Eve. In McPherson’s view, one night doesn’t change a man—here, Tiny Tim would undoubtedly be a goner.
Yet while John is no saint, in Schlatter’s performance we don’t dislike him. In a carefully constructed but not entirely well-executed portrayal, Schlatter plays John as a basically moral man with a tragic weakness. It’s not an especially original take. Schlatter, while a thoughtful actor, struggles at times to locate the emotional core and is ultimately unable to convey the depth of John’s pain.
The set makes the most of the Playground’s awkward stage (which lacks necessary depth but is disproportionally wide), giving the production some much-needed ambience. A mug emblazoned with the word “JOY” provides a nice touch of black humor in a relentlessly grim production. The funeral parlor has clearly been decorated in the hopes of providing a festive atmosphere, with a poinsettia on the filing cabinets and lights in the windows, but holiday cheer withers away in the grim setting. Jerold R. Forsyth’s lighting design does a good job contrasting the relative warmth and security of John’s current living and working situation with the bleak Dublin winter that lurks outside—John’s past and probable future.
If you enjoy Irish playwrights, this is the first show of the Philadelphia Irish Theatre Festival, running through May with eight productions from six local theaters and two of Ireland’s leading companies.
Through Dec. 19. $10. The Playground at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. 215.717.2173. amaryllistheatre.org
Calendar: Aug. 26-Sept. 2