Unheralded and unexpected comes Dublin’s holiday gift to musical theater. “Improbable Frequency” is improbable, all right; one-half “Travesties,” one-third “The Threepenny Opera” and one-quarter “Get Smart.” If that all doesn’t quite add up, no matter. Arthur Riordan’s wild and fanciful musical is something like an intellectual “39 Steps,” with meat on its bones and a surfeit of plot in the pot.
The show hails from 20-year-old Dublin outfit Rough Magic Theater Company, of which author-lyricist Riordan and director Lynne Parker are founding members. Piece premiered at the 2004 Dublin Festival and has been successfully mounted at the Edinburgh Festival, the Abbey Theater and on a 2007 tour.
Riordan sets his fantasy in 1941 Dublin, during the so-called Emergency. Still smarting from the struggle for independence from Britain, Ireland was officially neutral in WWII (although most of the Irish were “neutral on Britain’s side”). This allows the author to mix spies, sympathizers, crossword-puzzle experts and mysterious scientists with your typical barroom Dubliners. “We’re all in the gutter,” the denizens sing. “But some of us have an ear to the ground.”
This is a musical, although not in the sense of “Oklahoma!” “Cats” or “Mamma Mia!” Most of the dialogue is written in verse, some of which is spoken and much of which is sung in music-hall style. (The program boasts 30-odd fragmented songs, with such titles as “Be Careful Not to Patronise the Irish,” “Don’t You Wave Your Particles at Me,” “God’s Bicycle Slipped a Gear” and “Ready for the Wurst,” sung with salamis.)
Music comes from Bell Helicopter, a two-man group consisting of Conor Kelly and Sam Park. The score, played by an immensely helpful four-man combo, serves its purpose well; and Parker’s staging is a key component to the proceedings’ success. But it’s clearly Riordan who’s on display, with a linguistic tapestry of wit, whimsy and bad puns. Stoppard’s James Joyce/Lenin comedy is very much on the mind, although the anarchic Marx in the author’s proverbial eye is more likely Groucho than Karl.
Dublin-based cast of six — all Rough Magic veterans — is more than up to the task, changing characters, hats and cloaks seamlessly. (Those cloaks and seams, from costume designer Kathy Strachan, deserve special mention. As do the ever-functional barroom setting by Alan Farquharson and lighting design by Sinead McKenna.)
Peter Hanly is immensely likable as bookish British code-breaker Tristram. Cathy White gives a droll turn as another puzzle-ing spy, while Marty Rea does especially well as a mad scientist version of Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Erwin Schrodinger. Best of all is Sarah-Jane Drummey, as patriotic lass Philomena O’Shea. We know she’s patriotic, because she has green ribbons on her underclothes. Drummey acts, sings, clowns and appears to be the Irish equivalent of Sutton Foster (which should be taken as a high compliment). She also does a mean, barefooted clog dance.
Familiarity with quantum mechanics, Dublin pub culture, and British poet John Betjeman might enhance enjoyment of “Improbable Frequency”; these fields are thankfully not prerequisites, but audiences looking for a mindless evening’s entertainment might well look elsewhere.
The climax of “Improbable Frequency” has to do with a Probability Adjustment Tank, whatever that is; the plot boils down to a key encounter on the streets of Dublin in which “the chips are down,” literally so. You’ll have to head to 59th Street to unravel that one.