A bollocks walks into a Dublin bar and orders a pint. The bollocks has lost his job and quite possibly his marriage, and after a drink or ten, has begun a long weekend's journey into oblivion. That, in a proverbial nutshell, is the trajectory of Irish wunderkind Conor McPherson's Rum and Vodka, now making its local premiere under the auspices of Hidden Theatre director Jay Dysart and actor Brian Baumgartner. If the harrowing descent of a bollocks into utter bollocksdom (à la Trainspotting) is by now all too familiar, this early effort also makes a clear case for McPherson's preeminence as the poet of the gloomy and doomed Irish male. This bollocks, in other words, is worth minding.
McPherson, now 28 years old and cropping up damn near everywhere, is a purveyor of what the Irish call the "bog story"--tales of fantastic misfortune delivered as monologues in dreary crossroads pubs. In The Weir, which is now on Broadway, McPherson gives voice to the denizens of such a pub, who tell their respective bog stories in an attempt to impress one another. There are no tales of evil spirits luring men to their doom in Rum and Vodka (although, as the title suggests, a watery death is never far off), but McPherson's script develops the same fraternal intimacy with the audience and seems similarly bent on impressing us with the storyteller's prowess. The teller, in this case, is the tale.
With his imposing, slightly lumpy form, and tiny eyes afloat in his face, Baumgartner looks the part of McPherson's intemperate everyman. He makes admirable sense of the vernacular of dear, dirty Dublin (in which consonants are regularly rolled into strange, new sounds and "fuck" can be adjective, verb, and noun in the same sentence). Yet there is a depth to Baumgartner, an essential and unaffected goodness that makes his character's slide into dissolution flirt with tragedy. As he lurches about Craig Siebels's barren set recounting yet another drunken dalliance, he radiates both self-loathing and self-pity--a mixture as dangerous as the titular concoction to those of us with a weakness for lost causes.
An acquaintance of mine once suggested that the cruelest joke ever played by God or man was the installation of mirrors above bars. There are indeed times--generally between midnight and 3:00 a.m.--when one should not be subjected to one's image. The strength of Rum and Vodka is its protagonists' utter lack of self-reflection. There is no bathetic arc from gutter to recovery here. McPherson nevertheless leaves open a small window of redemption in the play's final moments, when the drunken bollocks wanders home in the wee hours of the morning to stand over the beds of his sleeping daughters. In life as in bog stories, we're reminded, the ends are always loose.
As a champion of the drunk and desperate, McPherson is preceded by Eugene O'Neill, whose quintessential barroom drama, The Iceman Cometh, shared the Great White Way this past season with The Weir. O'Neill was by most accounts quite a gloomy bollocks himself. Yet if the Guthrie's new production of Ah, Wilderness! is any evidence, the terminally depressed alcoholic had his good days as well.
Written in 1932, before he turned to face his dead in The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey into Night, Ah, Wilderness! is the lone comedy in O'Neill's canon. The irony of this unabashedly sentimental "memory play," however, is that in reimagining his own childhood, O'Neill was creating the domestic haven he himself had never known. Transmitted through the rosy glass of memory, the author's quarrelsome and alcoholic parents become the affectionately drawn eccentrics of the Miller clan. Even the setting, a "large small town" gathering itself for a Fourth of July celebration, is a slice of Americana too idealized to be real. There is a poignance in such willful nostalgia, perhaps even a hint of the tragic.
Appropriate to the tone of O'Neill's play, director Douglas Wager's staging of Ah, Wilderness! for the Guthrie is all flat surfaces and cool colors. When we first enter the Miller house, Ming Cho Lee's simple set is suffused with green light, offset by a background seascape that fades into a rich purple twilight as the evening fireworks display approaches. Such a straightforward design bespeaks considerable confidence in both O'Neill's vibrant language, which is well justified, and the abilities of the Guthrie cast to deliver it, which proves equally so. We are introduced in the opening scene to the patriarch, Nat Miller (Nathaniel Fuller), his wife (Sally Wingert), and her brother, a charmingly rumpled drunk named Sid (Ron Frazier). Although the sedate domestic tableau is disturbed momentarily by the arrival of the Millers' brooding and lovelorn adolescent son, Richard (T.R. Knight), tranquillity rules the hour.
Richard Miller is the natural embodiment of O'Neill's nostalgia--a youth who, for all his lofty professions of love everlasting to the girl next door, remains essentially innocent. Much of the play's emotional weight, then, rests on the shoulders of Knight. And much to his credit, the young actor strikes a fine balance between a prodigal son and a wayward child (in a nice touch, Knight's voice cracks so often that he seems to be going through puberty before our eyes). Richard is, as O'Neill imagined, a boy on the edge of a great and unexplored wild.