Shakespearean thesp Kenneth Branagh looks a little, sounds a little and even walks a little like Jimmy Cagney. So it’s no surprise he might write a play about an Irish working-class kid who idolizes the pugnacious screen star.
But who’d have thought he’d shape it into such a powerful statement about “the troubles” in Belfast? “Public Enemy” is a gripping tale that siphons the entire Irish political situation through a little-reported perspective — the effect on Belfast’s working-class and unemployed residents.
The play preemed in London eight years ago, at the height of Great Britain’s difficulties with Irish resistance. It bowed in Gotham in 1994 and now it comes to L.A. At a time when strife between Britain and Northern Ireland has ebbed, the political impact of the piece is no less potent.
Branagh weaves a story about Tommy Black (Paul Ronan), an idealistic Cagney fanatic who sees his life in terms of Tommy Powers, the hoodlum in the 1931 feature “Public Enemy.” In the movie, Powers, whose angry demeanor alienates everyone, is hounded by police and the mob; Tommy Black suffers an identical fate.
After he murders a store owner who happens to be a friend of the IRA, Black goes on the run with his best friend, a young bartender (Brian D’Arcy James), and his girl (Jenny Conroy).
The more he’s pursued, the further Black plunges into an escapist impersonation of Cagney, hoping that the tough-guy screen persona will function for him in real life. As the IRA and the law close in, he goes out in a blaze of glory remarkably similar to Cagney’s “White Heat”: “Top o’ the world, Ma.”
In a blistering portrayal, Ronan re-creates his perf from last year at the New York Irish Arts Center. Like Branagh, he bears a passing resemblance to Cagney, but he also captures the mannerisms. In Cagneyesque staccato, Ronan spits out his words, punctuating nearly every greeting with “Whaddya say? Whaddya hear?” His intensity grows as the circle tightens and the actor’s physical presence seems to contract with it.
Ronan even takes a stab at tap-dancing Cagney’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy” routine in the opening of the play, an amateur hour at a local bar where he can ply his Cagney impression.
Conroy gives the moll-like role some sweet sincerity. She opens the play with a wonderfully drab performance of a Patsy Cline song.
Nye Heron’s direction keeps the play clipped and moving along, but projecting the film “Public Enemy” against the background to end the piece is a bit overstated.
Branagh’s writing is taut and tough, if occasionally melodramatic. Only major weakness is the histrionic use of a narrator, who tells the story in the form of a folk fable rather than letting the dramatic action stand on its own.
Still, the piece’s view is remarkable. And Ronan’s performance is a true descent into madness. Rent the movie, then come and watch the play.