Getting drunk and picking a fight is one way to observe St. Patrick’s Day. The Irish Arts Center offers a civilized alternative with its well-timed revival of Marie Jones’ “A Night in November,” a feel-good piece that debuted in 1994 and made international waves with its pacifist message regarding “the troubles” plaguing Northern Ireland. In this politically conciliatory one-man play by the “Stones in His Pockets” scribe, Irish thesp Marty Maguire holds the stage as a Protestant civil servant in Belfast who has a life-altering experience during a critical football match and rediscovers himself as Irish Man.
The piece is plenty heart-warming as a character study of Kenneth McCallister (Marty Maguire), a garden-variety Protestant bigot who undergoes an epiphany when he hops on a plane and travels to the U.S. to cheer for the Republic of Ireland in the 1994 World Cup soccer matches. But as a slice-of-life study of the multitude of characters who figure in Kenneth’s sectarian world, the one-man performance piece is painfully overlong and under-acted.
Poor, mixed-up Kenneth is safe in the hands of Maguire, whose beaming, good-natured countenance takes the curse off this working-class stiff’s thoughtless prejudice against his Catholic neighbors. Thesp takes the character in hand like an elder brother, gently guiding him through the epiphany that begins when he attends the famous 1993 playoff match between the soccer squads of the Republic and of Northern Ireland.
“This is not a football match,” his mean-spirited father-in-law advises Kenneth. “It’s a battlefield.”
Appalled by the sectarian hatred fueled by the match, Kenneth begins to question the nationalist prejudices that have always defined his world. This guy is no intellectual heavyweight, and playwright Jones works discreetly to find an idiom that doesn’t patronize his ideological questing or overstate his quiet heroism.
“I have never witnessed such a despicable display of hatred as I have tonight,” Kenneth tries to tell his wife, who brushes him off. “How could I blame her, when I didn’t even know what I believed myself? I only knew that something was happening to me.”
Jones develops that “something” with proper sensitivity, tracking the progress of this political naif as he begins to notice the day-to-day cruelties and indignities so casually inflicted on the Catholic Irish. And whenever Kenneth’s naivety teeters on outright stupidity, Maguire steps in with a self-effacing laugh to restore his good humor and give him back his humanity.
All in all, it’s a careful piece of character-building, well-calibrated by both scribe and mouthpiece. Where the play falls down — and stays down, beyond the reach of helmer Tim Byron Owen — is in projecting Kenneth’s internal struggles with his conscience onto the world at large.
Maguire adopts a variety of voices and physical poses to play the innocents and idiots who figure in Kenneth’s conversion. But these secondary characters are locked in caricatured attitudes and resist all attempts at humanization.
While we may laugh heartily at the Irish Americans who invite the Belfast visitor to watch the big match with them in a New York bar, the raucous comedy of this extended scene is no “wild and wonderful harmless celebration of human beings just simply bringing out the best in themselves,” as the playwright would have it. It’s an exhausting end to one man’s lonely journey.