It’s fitting that the Irish Rep’s production of “Mr. Dooley’s America” is staged on the same barroom set the company used for its June production of “The Field.” This pleasant two-hander isn’t trying to leave a permanent mark: It just has a few stories to tell before ambling on its way.
Playwrights Philip Dunne and Martin Blaine adapt their anecdotes from newspaper columns written in the early 20th century by Peter Finley Dunne. Dunne — the playwright’s father — wrote in the voice of “Mr. Dooley,” an Irish barkeep who held forth on everything from politics to religion to love. The play essentially stages the column, letting Dooley (Vincent Dowling) chatter while polishing his beer mugs. There’s no plot but plenty of quips and homespun wisdom.
Taken together, the moral of his stories is that the world doesn’t change. Auds can chuckle knowingly when Dooley says things like “A fanatic is a man who does what he thinks the Lord would do if He knew the facts of the case.” And no matter the year, someone can always agree with the line “A man can be right and be president, but not at the same time.”
It’s odd that our unchanging struggles can evoke such a warm response. But when a well-spoken bartender, bathed in amber light, speaks his mind in a lilting Irish cadence, corruption and cheating just seem charming.
Dowling’s relaxed perf helps, too. He tosses off his observations with the twinkle of a man who enjoys hearing his stories as much as telling them. We know from thesp’s gentle voice and sly smile that Dooley isn’t angered by human foibles. Instead, he’s amused by how predictable we are.
This easygoing attitude gets a boost from Des Keogh, who plays both Dunne and Mr. Hennessy, a regular customer at the pub. Keogh creates excellent partners in crime, asking Dooley the perfect leading questions and grunting with approval in all the right places. With the chemistry of old friends, these men could hold sway at any barbershop in town.
And maybe their air of seasoned wisdom is what draws delight from painful subjects. If Mr. Dooley stays chipper in the face of our failings, then problems feel more manageable. If someone reminds us our crises aren’t new, then it’s harder to say the world is ending.