You know something’s not right in a Conor McPherson play when it’s a prolonged moment of silence that one recalls most fondly.
In “Dublin Carol,” the 28-year-old Dubliner’s first play since his extraordinary “The Weir,” that moment comes in the last of its three brief scenes. John Plunkett (Brian Cox), an undertaker in a shabby firm in the Irish capital, is staring woozily in front of him, an empty liquor bottle on the table further testament to a life destroyed by drink. Busying himself preparing tea while John sits inert is Mark (Andrew Scott), the (unseen) boss’ genial 20 -year-old apprentice.For much of the play, John has been spilling his worn-out guts out either to Mark or to Mary (Bronagh Gallagher), the estranged daughter suddenly arrived in his midst on this none-too-festive Christmas Eve. But with the play nearing its ambiguous close, director Ian Rickson lets a hush descend on the stage and, in so doing, elicits one from an audience that, for much of the rest of the evening, can be sensed shifting and fidgeting and wondering when the play proper is going to begin.
Truth to tell, there’s not very much to “Dublin Carol,” and were it written by anyone else — not to mention directed by a lesser talent than Rickson, whose staging of “The Weir” was integral to its impact — the temptation might be to think of this newer piece as an unfulfilled and often very contrived sketch. But the theater, like it or not, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. McPherson’s first play in 2 1/2 years, “Dublin Carol” bears the further weight of having been chosen to open the rebuilt Royal Court Theater after a $ 40 million-plus overhaul, even if building delays prompted the current preview run, of sorts, on the stage of the Old Vic. (Barring further problems onsite, the Court engagement should begin Feb. 17.) So it gives me no pleasure at all to report on an exceedingly minor piece of writing that has inevitably been granted major status , though I suspect mediocre word-of-mouth may tell the full story over time.
Storytelling, of course, has been one of McPherson’s singular gifts, whether in the monologues of “St. Nicholas” and “This Lime Tree Bower” or in the exchanged soliloquies that make up the spectral and poignant dialogue of “The Weir.” There’s something pleasingly familiar, then, about the opening passages of “Dublin Carol,” in which John unburdens himself on the willing auditor, Mark, via lines like, “This is the story of how I met your Uncle Noel,” that could be McPherson’s authorial equivalent to firing a gun at the races: Right, you think, they’re off.
Except that they aren’t, really, in any meaningful sense in “Dublin Carol,” which replicates the fundamental stasis of “The Weir” without ever approaching that play’s mournful affect and structural cunning. Without belaboring the comparison, suffice it to say that “The Weir” everywhere made clear just why its characters were so busy soliloquizing — or, in the telling case of the bartender Brendan, not. John, by contrast, out-talks (and out-drinks) any of the pub mainstays encountered in the earlier play, but there’s no real reason for his outpourings beyond the makings of a bald and not very interesting confessional. In “Dublin Carol,” unlike its predecessor, what you hear is virtually all you get.
No one, of course, wants a writer to keep repeating himself. But “Dublin Carol” hardly fulfills the basic requirements of drama. McPherson can set up an irony all right, many of them leaden, starting with the time of year — the holidays — when he has chosen to observe his not very cheery recovering (or not) alcoholic. (Irony No. 2: a man whose life involves death when he is all but dead himself.) And yet, for all John’s reflections on his “dirty, filthy” past, there’s not much that’s compelling about merely enumerating “boredom, loneliness , fear, anxiety”; it helps if you can dramatize it, too. Instead, terminal illness and a shock scenario or two (the grimmest involves a 14-year-old girl, a baby and a toilet) rather jarringly energize writing that lacks its own internal rhythm. If “The Weir” kept a consistently organic, tremulous beat, this play consists of too many self-evident pronouncements passing themselves off as profundities.
That feeling might be less exacerbated in a more confident staging, which the current production may become when it reaches the home for which it was intended all along. For now, the atmosphere mostly lies in Paul Arditti’s eloquently unnerving soundscape and in a design from Rae Smith (sets) and the invaluable Paule Constable (lighting) that is suspended between the abyss and a hoped-for epiphany in a way that the writing can only approximate. To be sure, isolated lines ring out (Christmas, we’re told, is “another filthy morning — only there’s a star in the East”), even if they come with a self-conscious tinge to them, as if papering over cracks elsewhere.
The truth is, it’s rarely a good sign if the characters start crying before the audience, as happens here. Playing the kind of self-aware old soak upon whom O’Neill built a career, McPherson semi-regular Cox possesses the baleful eyes and gallows humor for the part without once touching the heart — something managed more immediately by Gallagher, despite Mary’s receipt of such clunkers as, “I love you, and I hate you, too.”
Scott does as well as he can by the utterly thankless role of Mark, which comes with a domestic dilemma to counter John’s. In any case, John has the play’s final moments alone, as the bells symbolically toll. Awaiting a possible visit to his ailing one-time spouse, he sits ready for action but inactive (shades of Beckett) in an anticipatory limbo. The audience at “Dublin Carol” will more than know the feeling.