Calling something Irish doesn’t make it so — not even when the pretender is installed in the authentic Hibernian context of the Irish Arts Center. The fabled Irish bar that lends its name to Daniel Roberts’ “The Gold Standard” was modeled on one of those grand old establishments (the kind with cracked leather club chairs, wood-paneled walls and polished brass fittings) that still survive on certain Ivy League campuses. But none of that ageless Irish stolidity comes across in the cheesy setting for this narcissistic exercise in nostalgia. Just as well, since it surely would be lost on the vapid characters who populate the place in Alex Lippard’s misbegotten production.
Buried under the verbiage of the self-indulgent script is maybe enough content for one of those maudlin short stories about the narrator’s golden youth that occasionally get past the fiction editors at the New Yorker. Here, though, the focus of the narrative awkwardly shifts from a former student making a ritual pilgrimage to his beloved hangout at the University of Pennsylvania to an older, more illustrious campus celebrity who never left the place. So it’s hard to tell exactly whose wasted youth and promise is actually being mourned here.
The first loser we meet is John (Anthony Hagopian), a thirtysomething Wall Streeter who hasn’t been back to the Gold Standard since graduation. Having made enough money to call himself a success — and acquired the trophy babe to prove it — the former scholarship student is prepared to impress the hell out of the old crowd with his gorgeous fiancee Olivia (Sabine Singh), an iconic blond WASP who treats him like dirt.
“You are cutest when you look defeated,” is a typical sample of Olivia’s castrating sweet talk. “Your lips part and your eyes grow small.”
To John’s humiliation, the crusty house bartender, Malcolm (Jordan Charney), doesn’t recognize his prodigal visitor and proceeds to put him down with that sly note of condescension so nicely done by Irish bartenders. Charney, a veteran thesp who knows a comic throughline when he’s handed one, has his fun when Malcolm snidely mocks the poor shmuck by serenading him with mock-heroic lines from “Big John.”
To John’s further humiliation, he also gets an uncivil welcome from Krego (Yasu Suzuki), the Korean poet he once worshipped, who calls him Johnny Boy and brazenly seduces Olivia. At this point, our homecoming boy slinks off the stage, half smashed on Sea Breezes and with his ego in shreds, not to return until the end of the play.
It would be a lie to say John is missed, given the unpleasant nature of his shallow character and the stilted readings that mannered thesp Hagopian gives to his pretentious dialogue. But with John out of the picture, there’s no escaping the odious Olivia and the insufferable Krego.
Singh has the patrician good looks to play Olivia the ice queen, and she is poised enough to accept the slobbering attentions of two lovers without throwing up. Thesp is no match, though, for a character with no soul and half a brain — the adolescent fantasy of someone who seems to have acquired his notions of designing women from 1950s Playboy magazines.
Olivia’s destruction of Krego is foreordained, since the narcissistic writer is too obviously a fraud to impress anyone but the most gullible of undergraduates. More surprisingly, he does take in Olivia, who should know a pretender from a genuine rock star, but who is so desperate for a rich and talented daddy to gather her up in his celebrity embrace that she misses the neon “loser” sign flashing over Krego’s head.
Krego himself proves to be no celebrity — except in the Gold Standard, where the working-class Irish staff seems uncharacteristically impressed with a self-styled writer who hasn’t published anything in two decades and shows no facility whatsoever for the language of poetry.
Malcolm, at least, has a cynical excuse for pandering to Krego, who tips with a largesse appropriate to a trust-fund baby. But young barmaid Nomi, as played with a refreshing degree of candor by Alie Carey, seems to genuinely admire this poseur — disquieting proof of how even a blatant phony like Krego can corrupt innocent minds.
For some reason, the playwright has given this supposedly gifted poet the intellect of a dull child and the idiom of a total illiterate. And for some equally opaque reason, helmer Lippard has chosen to cast the role with an actor whose explosive diction is close to incomprehensible.
“Rent bungalow where I will work on script,” Krego says, in one of his drunken fantasies of western literary success. “Soon enough becoming buddies with leading man and director over Hollywood-style lunch. Is like Hemingway went fish with Gary Cooper.”
Well, actually, is more like Christopher Moltisanti went stalk Ben Kingsley in “The Sopranos.”
In that New Yorker short story, the old grad would be educated by his fateful trip back to his college stomping grounds. His eyes would be opened to the fraudulence of his pathetic role model. His unfogged brain would be awakened to the wiles of his calculating girlfriend. He would lose his class-bound feelings of inadequacy and be free to write, perchance to publish.
Or, as Malcolm would have it, “He’ll probably go to the titty bar on South Street.”