Credit Marie Jones with a light touch and a rare gift for character development: The first act of her new play “Rock Doves” approaches the whimsy of her pleasant 2001 Broadway two-hander “Stones in His Pockets.” More’s the pity, then, that the audience returns from intermission to find a succession of artificial plot twists clumsily covered over with cheap sentiment. It’s a baffling reversal for a writer whose introduction of these well-played characters seems so careful and organic at first.
Irish vagrant Knacker (Marty Maguire) possesses an enviable air of superiority in his place of residence — a squalid one room apartment in a lousy section of post-troubles Belfast. It’s the first thing the Boy (Johnny Hopkins) notices about the old man — apart from his smell.
Boy, an aspiring thug in more trouble than he can handle, can’t wait to intimidate his new roommate with his credentials, snarling to Knacker that he’s “a commander in the organization — a top ranker, right?” Knacker is less impressed than he should be (“A top wanker, did you say?”), and things go downhill from there. Imagine a homeless, Irish Oscar and Felix and you’ll get the idea.
It’s a promising start for “Rock Doves,” a play bearing the formal name of nature’s least-loved airborne life form, the common pigeon. As Boy struggles to assert himself in the local pecking order, Knacker finds himself entertained and ultimately tolerant of Boy’s youthful eccentricities. After all, he’s got problems of his own, not least of which is a near-epileptic fit of rage at his wife, who isn’t there.
Added to this, Knacker’s friend Bella (Natalie Brown) and her transvestite brother Lillian (Tim Ruddy) retreat to Knacker’s now-crowded pad with the news that local mob boss Top Dog has been sold out by one of his own men, and the others are scouring the city for the, er, stool pigeon.
It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out why Boy finds himself so interested in the insides of closets whenever he hears someone on the stairs.
This set-up is good and most of it, in fact, is very funny, especially Knacker’s insistence on watching a busted television and his descriptions of the programs he’s enjoying. The channel changes, however, almost immediately after the act break, when Boy reveals the first of many terrible secrets.
The secrets are terrible in two ways: First, they’re unpleasant; second, they’re poorly constructed and uninteresting. What was an unlikely comedy among people who have no reason to laugh quickly descends into a maudlin series of out-of-character recriminations that feel badly tacked on to the narrative in order to give it a more traditional direction.
It’s a shame, because the performances here are largely above reproach, especially Maguire’s. A “card-carrying member of the nutteriety,” Knacker’s improbably twinned good cheer and hopelessness give the play some of its richest material, especially with Bella and Boy as his foils.
Jones and director Ian McElhinney have provided the characters with a fascinating backdrop — the homeless experience among fractious Irish crime clans is certainly new ground. Too soon, though, the characters start to bemoan the hardships of the world and observe that violence begets violence. At that point, we’re back in familiar territory.