Extended exposure to two actors reading personal letters aloud could be a numbing theatrical experience were it not for the understanding heart and endearing humor that Des Keogh brings to his share of the task. A veteran character actor in his native Ireland, Keogh applies his ingratiating style to a warm portrayal of a rural Irish matchmaker named Dicky Mick Dicky O’Connor — and then wows us by taking on more than a dozen of this folksy philosopher’s love-starved clients.
Keogh needs only a change of headgear and a shift in posture to get under the skins of the farmers, horse-breeders and blacksmiths who look to Dicky Mick Dicky for a bit of human warmth to get them through the long nights in the remote Irish countryside. Eyes twinkling with amusement (and occasionally brimming with compassion), he urges his correspondents not to despair while he scours the market for the “good firm woman” or the “fine, big, hairy man” of their dreams — while doling out hard nuggets of wisdom on how to woo the flawed specimens he sends them.
For her part, Anna Manahan (who took a Tony home to Ireland for her work in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”) makes a meal of the doughtiest of these damsels, an insatiable crone named Fionnuala Crust, who drives two husbands to their graves and hounds Dicky Mick Dicky beyond endurance. But Manahan seems unable to modulate her banshee tone for less strident characters, who are done in as much by that grating voice as by director Michael Scott’s inability to tone down its shrill delivery.
Phyllis Ryan must also take her lumps for the tonal imbalance that throws off her adaptation of “Letters of a Matchmaker,” one of several epistolary novellas written in the 1950s and ’60s by the prolific Irish playwright, essayist, novelist and wit John B. Keane. Weighted to showcase Keane’s crowdpleasing comic characters like Crust, the piece gives short shrift to Dicky Mick Dicky’s hard cases — hopeless unfortunates like poor Cornelius J. McCarthy who writes desperately from Tullylore, County Cork: “For God’s sake do what you can for me as I can find no words to tell you about the loneliness.”
Given Keane’s infallible ear for the lyric poetry of the Irish language (and the blunt edge of the Irish tongue), we are charmed by his rough-edged characters and enthralled by the verbal eloquence that Keogh finds in their pleading voices. But, lacking more range and depth of feeling, their sorry lives fail to strike us full in the heart.