For Irish playwright Conor McPherson, drama is synonymous with the oral tradition of storytelling. His play “The Weir” continues to hold the hushed attention of Broadway audiences with its ghostly tales uniting the haunting fears of a group of barroom regulars with the sorrow of one genuinely bereaved outsider. “This Lime Tree Bower” — written a couple of years earlier, though only now receiving its Off Broadway debut at Primary Stages — relates a disturbingly comic set of criminal incidents haplessly perpetrated by two brothers and their sister’s sexually compulsive boyfriend. While the occasional lapse into sophomoric humor marks this as an early work in McPherson’s career, the piece has an undeniable power and intelligence, particularly in the compassionate way it portrays the characters’ snowballing moral compromises. Harris Yulin’s cast does a credible job throughout, though the long monologues cause a few noticeable stumbles along the way.
The three garrulous male characters, each a natural-born raconteur, jauntily arrange wooden folding chairs on Walt Spangler’s spare set, clearly relishing the opportunity to relate their exploits before a packed house. Joe (T.R. Knight), a 17-year-old high school student, starts things off by recalling his fascination with Damien, the aptly named new devil of a transfer student, who’s been expelled from his previous schools for smoking and cutting class. It’s not long before Joe begins mimicking those same bad habits, though there’s something about his new pal that makes him feel like he’s in danger of crossing some kind of tabooed threshold.
Ray (Drew McVety), who’s been attentively listening to Joe’s yarn, cuts in to offer his own perspective on the events leading up to that fatefully felonious Friday. Having awakened that morning in bed with one of his female students, he recounts his sly and cowardly exit, his race to the university to give yet another philosophy lecture while hung over, and, finally, his late-afternoon run-in with the weepy young woman who importunately detains him from seeing his real girlfriend, Carmel, whom he hypocritically admires for her “country virtues.”
At this point, Frank (Thomas Lyons) butts in to explain why he decided to take revenge on Simple Simon McCurdie, the local councilor and bookie (just one of the play’s many delectable ironies), who loaned Frank’s hard-working father several thousand dollars when his small-time seaside restaurant was threatened with bankruptcy. Unable to see his old man continually harassed by such a weasely character, Frank thrillingly explains how he donned a hooded mask, loaded up his shotgun and proceeded to rob 30 grand out of McCurdie’s secret safe.
As chance would have it in this increasingly outlandish potboiler, Ray, who’s supposed to be greeting a distinguished visiting professor of moral philosophy at the airport, unwittingly offers his potential future brother-in-law a getaway lift. Not that Ray suffers any great pangs of conscience once he’s told about the heist. In fact, as he later giddily reveals, Frank takes him and Joe to Cork for a champagne-filled weekend, where all three drunkenly gloat over the stolen loot.
The story concludes with a police investigation, though surprisingly the person under suspicion isn’t Frank but his kid brother Joe. Apparently Damien, who’s been taken into custody for raping a young girl, has pointed the finger at his innocent friend. Though a blood test eventually clears the matter up, a pall of guilt lingers darkly over everyone.
The play’s title, which comes from Coleridge’s poem “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison,” is a metaphor for contemporary Ireland, though the unsparing diagnosis of the sickness of the time is easily applicable to modern society in general.
This is not to confuse the play with the kind of high-dudgeon finger-wagging that gets right-wing pundits like William Bennett onto the national bestseller list. Sharing Coleridge’s conviction that “no sound is dissonant which tells of life,” the playwright never loses sight of his characters’ imperiled yet wryly obstinate humanity.
Of course not everyone will be as taken with the play’s monologue form, which , in addition to precluding group scenes, makes sharp demands on its performers — not least of which has to do with the difficulty of sustaining a consistent Irish accent. While not up to the seamless ensemble standards of Ian Rickson’s Anglo-Irish production of “The Weir,” Yulin’s American cast demonstrates a laudable restraint in handling the corniness of some of the more comically straining anecdotes; though the humor can get obvious, it never devolves into a cartoon.
Most impressively, Yulin’s clean direction pays homage to the imaginative power of words to transport their listener without the need for sensational distractions or special effects. McPherson’s work may not fit everyone’s definition of what a play should be, but, as this welcome new production demonstrates, compelling stories can make for equally compelling drama.