The setting, the characters, the behavior — a pub, heavy drinking, nastiness — are all quite stereotypical Irish in Jimmy Murphy’s “The Kings of the Kilburn High Road,” receiving its U.S. premiere at Burbank’s Theater Banshee. As the booze flows at a wake in this north London pub so, too, do the confessions and the quashed anger, making “Kings” more than standard bar fare: This is a sly and affecting work about age, identity and lost opportunities.
A quintet of Irishmen, lifelong friends who have spent the last 25 years living in London, have gathered to toast Jackie, their friend killed in a train accident. Play’s chief protagonist Jap (Dan Conroy) enters first. Jackie’s death has brought Jap to the boiling point, a contrast to Maurteen (Dan Harper), Shay (John Jabaley) and Gitna (Matt Foyer), each of whom conveys a more traditional message of sorrow. They argue, brawl, sing and, eventually, bawl over their loss, which ultimately serves as a metaphor for their own failings and their stubborn unwillingness to return home less than successful.
While discussing their youth, dreams and Maurteen’s sudden temperance, the talk continues to circle around to the whereabouts of Joe (Steve Marvel), the one member of their troupe who moved to London 25 years ago and made something of himself in the construction business. His arrival cheers up the others. For starters, Joe realized the ambition the boys had in 1975 and his presence allows them to feel like royalty. Secondly, he’s also the only one with enough cash to pay for beer, whiskey and sandwiches.
The celebration of his arrival turns dark the more Joe peers into the lives of each of his schoolboy chums. The two married men, Maurteen and Shay, have trouble at home; Gitna and Jap struggle to hold onto jobs, and may soon be homeless. On top of that, Joe senses there’s an untold story behind Jackie’s death that, once it is revealed, gets each man hurling invectives and vocalizing personal pain, much of which stems from their struggles with their Irish identity.
Entire cast is a model of consistency. In the company of his mates, Conroy’s Jap is never going to reveal any sense of failure or misgivings about his life, just as Foyer ensures that Gitna is never anything but congenial. Harper’s Maurteen is filled with conflict; his angrier moments are eerily real. Jabaley, as the milquetoast Shay, gets the least to do since his character has the home life with wife and children that all the others envision for themselves. Marvel’s Joe makes a believable journey from mournful to unhinged.
Straightforward as “Kings” is constructed, Sean Branney’s production connects with the oddly placed bathos throughout the play. Laughs are sparked at odd times and by actions that are not universally comic; one has to wonder how much of the humor is intentional.
Michael Mahlum’s lighting is bright and unchanging; Arthur MacBride’s set of a pub’s side room is functional with just enough clutter.
Christy M. Hauptman’s costumes are nondescript at first glance, yet, as the characters reveal themselves, their clothing reinforces the stories being told.