Monnelly, Mark Ryan
America has Neil Simon, England has Alan Ayckbourn, and Ireland has Bernard Farrell: purveyors of middlebrow comedies that are as close to box-office sure things as theater gets. Farrell’s latest, “Kevin’s Bed,” is certainly packing them in at the Abbey; but artistically it’s lackluster, an example of what can go wrong when such a play spins around a faulty central conceit.
The play has a clever time-travel structure: The first act takes place in 1973, in the kitchen of Doris and Dan’s house during their 25th wedding anniversary party. The second act is set in the present day, in the same kitchen , during the celebration of the couple’s 50th.
The title character is Doris and Dan’s son, a gormless loser whose inability to take responsibility for his actions throws the lives of everyone around him into chaos. In the first act, Kevin has just returned from Rome, where he tried unsuccessfully to become a priest; the family expends much energy trying to hide this failure from the guests. A broken dumbwaiter, a nosy granny in the attic and the unexpected arrival of Marie, Kevin’s pregnant Italian girlfriend (whom he tries to pass off as a well-meaning nun), are thrown into the mix as the situation grows more frenzied.
In the second act we discover the sad end to which everyone has come. The house is now in the hands of Kevin and Marie, who are stuck in a miserable marriage; Kevin’s parents and his brother have exiled themselves from the community following an incident that shamed the whole family. But they’ve all returned for the anniversary party, where more hijinks — including a fake mortal illness — result in a bittersweet ending for Doris and Dan but not for poor, static Kevin.
There is something undeniably poignant in watching well-meaning people trip up on their foibles, and “Kevin’s Bed” is at its best when it exploits this fact at certain points in the second act. But the play’s central character is neither well-meaning nor particularly interesting: All the frenetic activity seems like a vain attempt to cover up the fact that Kevin is a bore.
Another trouble spot is the play’s attempt to marry broad physical comedy with topical social commentary — about clergy-worship among the Irish middle classes and sexual abuse of students by teachers — which comes off as more glib than pointed.
At times play and production skirt dangerously close to homophobia and xenophobia, particularly the latter, in Carmen Hanlon’s out-of-control performance as the Italian wife Marie.
Ben Barnes’ production is otherwise skillful, giving the play the level of gloss it needs. He moves the actors around the playing area with great panache. Acting standouts are Eamon Morrissey as father Dan and Catherine Walsh as Betty, Kevin’s girl-that-got-away.
The designers have a field day with the time-switching: Joan O’Clery has great fun with bell-bottoms and polyester in the first half and tasteful linens in the second; and Frank Hallinan Flood’s transformation of the kitchen from homey to state-of-the-art is breathtaking.
Farrell is a far from untalented writer — his dialogue is believable and can be quite funny — but this is the kind of play that gives “crowd-pleasing” a bad name. One hopes the Abbey will find a happier marriage between popular appeal and high standards as the bumper summer tourist season approaches.