Waning of sexual attraction in a middle-class marriage -- is handled with admirable delicacy in this new play by Eugene O'Brien at the Irish Repertory Theater. John Tillinger's clean, effective production, with splendid performances from Ciaran O'Reilly and Catherine Byrne, allows play's appeal to seduce us quietly.

A sensitive subject — the mysterious waning of sexual attraction in a middle-class marriage — is handled with admirable delicacy in this new play by Eugene O’Brien at the Irish Repertory Theater. John Tillinger’s clean, effective production, with splendid, fuss-free performances from Ciaran O’Reilly and Catherine Byrne, allows the play’s poignant appeal to seduce us quietly, without piling on the pathos.

The format — essentially two monologues woven together — and the Irish-village setting strike dangerously familiar chords. We appear to be in territory firmly staked out by Conor McPherson. But O’Brien doesn’t share McPherson’s affection for yarns spiked with extravagant or supernatural notes. His turf is more humble, his approach more indirect.

At first the evening threatens to be utterly inconsequential, as O’Reilly’s Billy bends our ear with his tale of a pub crawl that focuses on his growing lust for a younger woman from the village. He only casually alludes to a wife and kids at home.

Breeda (Byrne), who tellingly occupies a separate space onstage throughout the play, begins by revealing how she was passing her evening while Billy was on the town — trying not to steal upstairs and read her favorite passage from a book a girlfriend gave her, the one about the harem girl ravaged by strangers as her husband is forced to watch.

It seems that since the kids came along, and Breeda gained back weight she’d once carried as an unhappy, picked-upon teenager, things haven’t been too cozy in the marriage bed. As the playwright gradually reveals, Billy can’t bring himself to admit the problem, vaguely blaming “the weight,” and trying, a little desperately, to channel his lust on the comely flirt Imelda. When erotic fascination flags under the influence of booze — or his nagging affection for his wife — he exhorts himself to get “back on track.”

Breeda blames herself, too, but now she’s slimmed down, and she hopes tomorrow night will be different. With the febrile excitement of a young girl looking forward to a first date, she’s anxiously hoping to rekindle their romance after a night of boozing at the pubs and the disco. Byrne’s wonderfully lucid performance communicates that anxiety, and the poignant insecurity underneath it; the years of ridicule have left Breeda deeply scarred and unsure of her sexual allure.

But there are layers of confusion and sadness in both Billy and Breeda that are gently drawn in these nuanced performances. As O’Brien’s title allusively indicates, this once-loving couple has somehow stumbled out of paradise, and can’t figure out how to get back. O’Brien’s writing doesn’t strain for any larger meanings, however. It mostly sticks to the particulars of their night on the town, bringing vividly alive the small social world that impinges so intimately on Billy and Breeda’s lives. It’s a world that brings comfort and camaraderie, but also leaves them piteously exposed to public ridicule.

A wee bit too long, structurally simple, with rigorously naturalistic dialogue, the play is nevertheless adventurous in its exploration of the powerful role sexuality, and sexual identity, can play in shaping men’s and women’s lives. This being Ireland, an unhappy ending is not in doubt, but O’Brien’s is nicely ambivalent. Billy’s inability to face his problems leads him only further into darkness and shame, but Breeda is allowed a redemptive embrace. Nevertheless, Billy and Breeda end as they began, in isolation.

Eden

Irish Repertory Theater; 199 seats; $45 top

Production

An Irish Repertory Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Eugene O'Brien. Directed by John Tillinger.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Klara Zieglerova; lighting, Howell Binkley; production stage manager, Colette Morris. Opened Feb. 1, 2004. Reviewed Jan. 29. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast

Billy - Ciaran O'Reilly Breda - Catherine Byrne
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