Playwright Richard Bean has described “The Big Fellah” as his 9/11 play, even though its more about the 1970s than 2001, and the terrorists it depicts are Irish, not Islamic. In this new play for the Out of Joint company, we see how the victims of the World Trade Center attacks included many – specifically, among the New York police and fire services – who were implicated in the IRAs campaign of violence against the British state. Were that the play’s only point, it might seem a little mean-spirited. Fortunately, “The Big Fellah” is also a tightly wound and funny depiction of a diaspora community whose dreams for their homeland turn to disillusion over 30 bloody years.
The titular Big Fellah is David Costello (Finbar Lynch), the IRA’s main man in New York whom we meet addressing a fundraising speech to a St. Patrick’s Day dinner crowd. Costello has arranged for fugitive IRA killer Ruairi O’Drisceoil (Rory Keenan) to hole up in a safe house: the Brooklyn brownstone, provided by new recruit Michael (David Ricardo-Pearce), which provides the setting for the play. Starting in 1972, we revisit this Irish-American IRA cell at decade intervals; as new fugitives come and go, the struggle loses its ideological purity, and a henchman is sent over from Dublin to punish whoever is leaking information to the FBI.
Bean’s point about Irish-American support for the IRA, and the explicit link he makes to 9/11, is the play’s least interesting aspect. Presumably Bean is drawn to the irony of terror being inflicted on those who have themselves sponsored it. But his conclusion risks implying, unattractively enough, that New Yorkers got their just desserts in 2001. He might better have focused on the Big Fellah himself; the play is almost, but not quite, a devastating portrait of a man who loses faith in the cause to which he has dedicated his life. Lynch is highly effective in the role: fearsome but not ruthless, selfless in the cause of a country he barely knows, struggling to preserve the best of a struggle that was born out of love, but descends into hate.
Costello should be more central to the play; instead, its an ensemble piece of seven actors, who, under Max Stafford-Clark’s direction, are highly believable as people who’ve spent 30 years teasing, caring for and infuriating one another. In one entertaining scene midway through act two, Ruairi, Michael and corrupt NYPD cop Tom Billy (Youssef Kerkour) discuss Islamic fundamentalism – and the latter hotly denies any equivalence between militant Islam and his beloved IRA. But Bean does away with such distinctions: the IRA, like fundamentalist Islam, is macho and sexist; both, in Costello’s words, want to punish us for being human. That’s what Bean dramatizes: the struggle of these everyday Joes to stay human as their organization – their army – gets more zealous, brutal and unbending.
It’s terrifically tense, as the net closes around suspected mole Ruairi, as Michael’s sweetheart Elizabeth (Claire Rafferty) learns her Dublin-decreed fate, and as recovered alcoholic Frank (Fred Ridgeway) is tortured by being force-fed whisky. But ex-standup comedian Bean also mines a rich seam of humor, as comfortable Americans are thrown together with small-time desperadoes from a rain-soaked stretch of bog half a world away. Looking on, we can see from the start what Costello takes too many years, and too many deaths, to realize: I’m not Irish, I’m American… Why was that not enough?