Actor/director Kenneth Branagh's white heat might cast too harsh a glare on "Public Enemy," his first effort as a playwright. Making its U.S. debut at the Irish Arts Center seven years after its London bow, this modest effort won't be well-served by expectations raised by Branagh's film work.

Actor/director Kenneth Branagh’s white heat might cast too harsh a glare on “Public Enemy,” his first effort as a playwright. Making its U.S. debut at the Irish Arts Center seven years after its London bow, this modest effort won’t be well-served by expectations raised by Branagh’s film work.

“Public Enemy” certainly isn’t a bad play, although it employs one device that nearly sinks it. For the most part, though, it’s a fairly effective crime drama and cautionary tale, a look at the allure of cinematic violence for youth trapped in the grim banality of real life. If Branagh’s name got the work onstage, no harm done. It won’t, however, make “Public Enemy” any more memorable.

With the same sense of melodramatic foreshadowing and basically decent characters fated for tragedy as the popular Brit musical “Blood Brothers, “”Public Enemy” tells the story of Tommy Black (Paul Ronan), a young dreamer whose obsession with James Cagney movies is his only reprieve from the mean streets of Belfast. On the dole for three years and with no end in sight, Tommy earns extra money and a touch of fame for his impersonations of Cagney in talent shows at the local pub.

As local thugs put increasing pressure on Tommy and bartending pal Davey (Brian D’Arcy James) to join the Protestant paramilitary group that wages battle against the IRA, the Cagney wannabe sinks deeper into his mental retreat until the legendary cinematic gangster virtually takes over. Swept up in his dangerous games are the sweet-natured Davey, Tommy’s girlfriend, Kitty (Bernadette Quigley), his angry brother (Neal Jones) and supportive mother (Patti Allison).

That Tommy’s scheme, taken from the Cagney movie that gives the play its title, will lead to violence and death is a foregone conclusion, thanks in large part to the relentless intrusion of another “Blood Brothers” similarity: a narrator who ambles through scenes intoning dire foreshadowing. “I smelled something different, something wrong,” says the character known as Thompson (George Coe), an American reporter covering the events.

Why Branagh felt the need to have every plot development rehashed, every message blatantly explained by this annoying character is unclear. There’s nothing so complex about the play that requires a narrator’s guidance, andhis absence would significantly improve pacing while lessening the melodramatic gloom. Even worse, the narrator has a distancing effect on the action, separating the audience from a main character who can be grating and unsympathetic all on his own.

The result is a play that is more promising in premise than in execution, despite generally good performances all around (with a tap-dancing Ronan doing a more-than-passable Cagney impression). Director Nye Heron works the cast well, although staging the play in the round serves no good purpose. Nor does an ear-shattering sound system, blessedly used only during the talent show segments.

Branagh’s talent as a playwright probably won’t rest on “Public Enemy,” which seems destined to become little more than a competently penned career footnote. The Irish Arts Center has given the play more than its due.

Public Enemy

Irish Arts Center, New York; 86 seats; $30 top

Production

An Irish Arts Center presentation of a play in two acts by Kenneth Branagh. Directed by Nye Heron.

Creative

Set, David Raphel; lights, Susan Roth; costumes, Mimi Maxmen; choreography, Josephine McNamara; music and sound, Nico Kean; video design, Edwin Dennis; casting, Laura Richin; production stage manager, John Brophy. Irish Arts Center artistic director, Heron. Opened Nov. 3, 1994; reviewed Nov. 2.

Cast

Thompson - George Coe
Tommy Black - Paul Ronan
Davey Boyd - Brian D'Arcy James
Geordie Pearson - Tony Coleman
Kitty Rogers - Bernadette Quigley
Ma - Patti Allison
Robert Black - Neal Jones
Kevin O'Donnell - James Beecher

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