San Francisco journalist Andrew O’Hehir’s first produced script is an archetypal Irish play whose retro feel is heightened by adherenceto another era’s recipe for drama. As big, ugly secrets emerge from living room shouting matches, “Cousin Martin” inhabits a traditional well-made play landscape as dislocated from today as its characters’ Dublin lives.
Anthony (Joel Mullennix), a 28-year-old Chicagoan, has crossed the ocean shortly after his father’s death, landing on the doorstep of Dad’s first cousin Bridie (Dierdre Herbert). This visit has two aims: First, to reconnect with extended family at a time of shared grief; second, to enlist their help in puzzling out the cancer-felled parent’s mysterious, urgent words.
Tony gets a mixed welcome. Peace-keeping Bridie is warm, as are her eldest daughters, Mary Margaret (Esther Mulligan) and Fionnuala (Stephanie Hunt). But years of hard drinking have worn down retired husband Martin (Owen Murphy), while son Seamus (Dennis Matthews) — stuck with Pa’s onerous telephone lineman job, his wife expecting twins — bitterly resents Tony’s privileged college career path in America.
Set during one long, alcohol-fueled night, the play threads together various narrative and thematic elements with skill. O’Hehir has a good ear for regional colloquialisms (“Shut yer gob, Martin, nobody wants to listen to yer ol’ blather”), though the smug liberal platitudes Tony mouths point up cultural value rifts re abortion and other issues with too heavy a hand.
The preordained Terrible Secret — and IRA-linked tragedy that’s haunted Bridie, Martin and Tony’s dad for decades — is a suitably explosive one, in narrative terms. But dramatically, the climactic scene’s pedestrian, sobbing-through-speeches tenor clogs its desired power. O’Hehir may simply be trying to pack too much (a virtual primer on Irish heritage) into his conventional frame. Still, the authorial craft displayed is well above average first-play standards.
Director Bill Talen and designer Kate Boyd, working on a slim budget, haven’t created much excitement in their staging. Hunt’s horny Fionnuala and Colley’s wedding-shy Paul contribute especially welcome notes of comic relief.