The Royal National Theater’s Transformation season comes to a sozzled end with “Closing Time,” Irish writer Owen McCafferty’s seemingly borrowed play about a quintet of barroom regulars — and, by implication, the larger Belfast community around them — that is calling it quits. At first, the scuffed pub setting suggests a faded urban variant on Conor McPherson’s “The Weir,” which shared both “Closing Time’s” excellent designer (Rae Smith) and two of its five-person cast (Jim Norton and Kieran Ahern). But we aren’t long into director James Kerr’s droopy-headed, largely silent opening tableau before a weightier antecedent makes itself clear: This is dramatic terrain previously walked by “The Iceman Cometh” and its inebriated sort, with McCafferty sounding his own requiem for lives undone by false hopes and given over instead to “fixing pipes an’ cold tea.”
There’s a difference, of course, between feeling part of a theatrical tradition and appearing hamstrung by it. And the latter, I’m afraid, turns out to be the fate of a play that doesn’t so much pay homage to some illustrious forbears as simply imitate them.
McCafferty has points to make, and boy, does he make sure we get them: Whereas the deathly tales of “The Weir” were always illuminated from within by a sense of flickering life, “Closing Time” for all its best intentions lends a deadening ear to its depiction of the living dead.
Chief among them is Norton’s Robbie, a sad-eyed proprietor in his early ’60s whose blowsy wife Vera (Pam Ferris) has turned her attentions toward the heavy-drinking Iggy (Patrick O’Kane), a married man half the publican’s age. While a TV plays silently on, its images either absorbed or repudiated by the bibulous crowd, the watering-hole’s various denizens waste not a moment in signaling their despair.
The adulterous Vera wants out of a marriage whose ossifying effects on Robbie are etched cruelly on his face. At the same time, Iggy and fellow layabout Joe (Lalor Roddy) are reeling from separate domestic scenarios that sound too hurtful to bear, Joe’s anxiety amplified by the 13 drunken years that he has occupied these very stools: If only his lengthy first-act speech weren’t quite so blatant a set piece. Last to arrive is Ahern’s slow-seeming Alec, a would-be arsonist who has known (and also delivered) a degree of abuse that even a 9 a.m. drink (or two or four) cannot allay.
A springier production might have found something potentially elemental in the encompassing blight, a murkiness — at once physical and existential — that is punctuated mostly by Norton’s ever-puckish wit. But as has been the way throughout the very variable Transformation season, this play opened after a scant couple of previews, which seems to have been too few to get beneath a society’s clearly bleeding skin. (The references to a changing Belfast can only be ironically intended, confronted with the stagnation on view.)
A popular TV name in Britain, Ferris can keep an entire audience riveted on her comically beady glances toward the onstage TV, with “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” the characters’ apparent show of choice. What she can’t quite do is communicate the full desperation of a woman who craves an alternative life that exists beyond her reach.
O’Kane, the National’s most recent Christy Mahon in “Playboy of the Western World,” gives another in a series of showy and shallow performances that long ago began to pall: It’s one thing for the character to make a spectacle of himself, quite another for the actor to do the same.
Such concerns, thankfully, vanish every time Norton steps into lighting designer Steve Barnett’s intentionally dim spotlight. “It’s sunny enough in here,” he announces to Alec, as if Robbie were determined to find some shaft of light amid the enveloping shroud. But long after the writing has reiterated its self-evident concerns (both acts end unwisely with references to a “long day”), Norton’s eyes are bearing constant testament to the pain that remains even when the pint of Guinness doesn’t.