Gary Mitchell's star seemed in permanent ascent: After well-received productions of his plays over the last several years at Dublin's Abbey and London's Royal Court, he was recently named one of two "most promising" playwrights in Britain for his most recent Royal Court offering, "The Force of Change," a thriller about the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) that Matt Wolf hailed in these pages as "a pistol of a play." But the June premiere of Mitchell's latest play, "Marching On," at the Lyric Theater in his hometown of Belfast indicates that he still has a good few things to learn about dramaturgy, and that he is in danger of wearing out an increasingly evident formula in his writing.

Gary Mitchell’s star seemed in permanent ascent: After well-received productions of his plays over the last several years at Dublin’s Abbey and London’s Royal Court, he was recently named one of two “most promising” playwrights in Britain for his most recent Royal Court offering, “The Force of Change,” a thriller about the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) that Matt Wolf hailed in these pages as “a pistol of a play.” But the June premiere of Mitchell’s latest play, “Marching On,” at the Lyric Theater in his hometown of Belfast indicates that he still has a good few things to learn about dramaturgy, and that he is in danger of wearing out an increasingly evident formula in his writing.

Stuart Graham’s production doesn’t help matters: While Graham is a skilled actor who is a particularly gifted interpreter of Mitchell’s work (he came to this gig straight from a featured role in “The Force of Change”), he is an inexperienced director who here proves unable either to help Mitchell pare down and shape an overwritten and underplotted script or to control its uncertainty of tone.

“Marching On,” a Lyric commission, is about the marching season, the controversial period in July when Protestant Loyalist groups parade in Northern Ireland’s streets, often inflaming the Catholic nationalist communities through which they march. The play is set in the present, and indeed the parades are kicking up controversy as usual this year, providing one of the most visible and contentious signs of the deep divide between the communities of Northern Ireland that political devolution alone cannot bridge.

Like nearly all of Mitchell’s high-profile plays, “Marching On” is set in a Protestant family home in Belfast. Enormous energy seems to have been spent to create a fully fitted kitchen, down to running water and functioning kettle, with which grandmother Shirley prepares endless cups of tea for her extended family: husband Samuel, an upstanding member of the Orange Order who intends to march just as he always has; adult son, RUC officer Christopher, who’s moved home because his marriage is in trouble; Christopher’s two teenage kids, busting-out-all-over Lorraine and firebrand Ricky; and family friend Johnny, a Scot whose arrival to march in the parades marks the play’s first significant event.

Not many other significant events follow, at least not on stage. Because the real action is taking place outside the house, the characters are most often forced to explain what’s happening and to narrate their emotions through awkward, schematic monologues and conversations. Ricky spends a lot of time dissing the “taigs” (Catholics) until he finally sneaks out one night to “caper” (which seems implausible — wouldn’t his otherwise over-protective elders have kept closer tabs on this 15-year-old hothead?). Samuel gets ill while guarding the contested road and spends most of the second act in a bed in the sitting room. Johnny and Lorraine flirt over a filched bottle of whiskey and engage in an over-written explication of the connection between their cultures — “the Scots-Irish thing.”

Meanwhile Christopher seethes and mopes around the house until he bursts out in a deeply unsubtle 11th-hour speech which spells out the ambiguities that his character represents — as a member of the RUC, he works alongside Catholics and can be forced, as he is here, to defend Catholics against members of his own community. Though the tensions on the streets are meant to be mounting throughout the play, we never get a sense of the noise and chaos, except for blaring, overstated marching music in the set changes; surely a more thoroughly conceived sound design could have added needed atmosphere.

Since up until now nearly all of Mitchell’s plays have been premiered outside of Northern Ireland, they have been inevitably received, at least partially, as “letters from the front”; audiences and critics have “read” them as docu-thrillers that give insight into a little-known and often misunderstood population. This play has been written for a local audience, but it is difficult to discern how Mitchell and Graham intend the spectators to react to the material. Even to a relative outsider, there just don’t seem to be any new insights provided here into the Northern situation, and attempts to add comedy to this depiction of Northern family life are too tentatively and unevenly handled to be effective.

Most of the cast members get stuck in one-note performances; only Sean Caffrey as Samuel and Simon Wolfe as Christopher manage to extract nuance. There might be a good play somewhere in “Marching On,” but it was several drafts away; control of this script seems to have marched away from playwright and director alike.

Marching On

Lyric Theater, Belfast; 300 seats; £12.50 ($18) top

Production

A Lyric Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Gary Mitchell.

Creative

Directed by Stuart Graham; sets and costumes, Johanna Connor; lighting, James C. McFetridge; music, Paul Boyd; stage manager, Eibhlin de Barra. Opened, reviewed June 12, 2000. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Samuel - Sean Caffrey Johnny - Ian Beattie Ricky - Packy Lee Lorraine - Sarah Boyd Wilson Shirley - Helena Bereen Christopher - Simon Wolfe
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