If Conor McPherson’s “The Weir” is the contemporary Irish country play par excellence, Alex Johnston’s “Deep Space” casts an equally canny eye and ear on the language and lifestyle of twenty-something Dubliners. The trajectory of Jimmy Fay’s cracking production is evidence of the growing international market for Irish-flavored drama: It premiered at the Adelaide (Australia) Fringe Festival and plays at the Bush Theatre in London until mid-April before opening at Dublin’s Project Arts Centre.
The setting is simple — a grotty flat — and so is the scenario: The friendship between the two roommates starts to fray when Jaco (Patrick Leech) strikes up a romance with a woman whom Keith (Johnston) has secretly been in love with for years. Unlike Johnston’s first play, last year’s “Melonfarmer,” which wandered and whinged as much as the characters it depicted (twenty-something Dublin dwellers again), the tone and pace here are perfectly calibrated. What starts out light and very funny slowly grows darker, as Keith’s malevolent silences come to speak as much as his knee-jerk quips and verbal jabs.
The ground the play covers is nothing new (two guys, one girl — you do the math); what’s exceptional here are the sensitivity and maturity with which Johnston examines both sides of the coin and the humor and pathos he milks out of painfully recognizable situations. Johnston and Fay perfectly capture the atmosphere of today’s Dublin (a major world capital that often feels like a talky little town) and the sound and look of Irish youth culture.
Johnston himself plays squirrelly, intellectual Keith, and he is spot-on — all sad, darting eyes and acid delivery. Leech paints the hunky Jaco with fairly broad strokes at first, but his performance grows richer as the night wears on. A lone problem is the play’s ending, which hovers uncertainly between provocative and problematic — our sympathies are meant to turn, but I was never sure how far. In all, though, it’s a solid offering from yet another promising and very young Irish playwright. Like McPherson and Anglo-Irishman Martin McDonagh, Johnston is not yet 30; his is a career to watch.