The new regime at the Abbey Theater is off to an energetic start with “Homeland,” Paul Mercier’s stylish production of his new play on a favored subject — sociocultural change in contemporary Ireland. The overall success of the evening is limited, however, by Mercier’s inability to draw his observations into a clear-cut narrative conclusion. Ambitiously, the playwright’s source materials include the Celtic myth of Oisin — the hero returning home from the misty land of Tir-na-Og — and recent Irish scandals over government and big-business collusion in property development. But particularly for non-natives, an apparently purposeful allusiveness eventually becomes frustratingly vague.
Central character Jerry Newman (Liam Carney) is on a plane landing at Dublin Airport. He brags to fellow passengers of his bigwig status, his villa on the Mediterranean and the mysterious, important business bringing him home for a quick visit.
He is whisked to an airport hotel to give lifestyle coaching to a colleague about to stand trial for some kind of dirty dealings; he works, apparently, as a consultant who teaches businessmen to “plug into your own myth” and “be the hero of your own story.”
Eventually, it emerges he’s a PR fixer who fled the country after having ratted out colleagues in a government tribunal, his story mapping onto that of the real-life disgraced lobbyist Frank Dunlop.
Mercier’s point, it seems, is that the rapid changes to Ireland over the past several decades have left it in a state of moral and cultural whiplash, a point he underlines, initially quite effectively, through a fast-paced and disorienting style of staging and storytelling. Quick set and lighting changes, actors constantly switching roles, and Jerry’s fast-talking, ever-changing account of himself make for a roller-coaster viewing experience.
Robbed by a prostitute he meets in a nightclub, Jerry sets out on a picaresque journey through today’s Dublin, visiting hotels staffed with Eastern European immigrants, grungy call shops, drug-ridden housing projects, a squatters’ encampment and a pack of evangelicals attempting to convert the masses in a shopping center parking lot.
Much of this is played as satire and is often very funny, thanks to sharp dialogue and precise character acting from the supporting cast (Denis Conway and David Pearse are particular standouts). A sleek physical setting from Paul Keogan and moody musical underscoring by Conor Linehan help create a pleasing barrage to the senses.
But constant references to Ireland’s corrupt property industry and the observation that the country has lost its ethical compass are not new insights. Ireland-is-changing plays such as this one, however exciting its staging, have in their own way become an over-familiar part of the country’s fabric.
One of Mercier’s attempted innovations here is the constant metatheatrical referencing of storytelling itself — the implicit message is Ireland needs to take control of its own story — but having that point come mainly via Jerry is confusing, since he also serves as a symbolic embodiment of moral absence.
It never really becomes clear what Mercier is trying to get at with the Oisin references: Initially he seems to be ironically underlining the lack of heroism in contempo life by naming the prostitute who fleeces Jerry “Niamh” — in the myth, Oisin’s lover in Tir-na-Og. But when this character re-emerges as the battered wife of a drug-dealing thug who convinces Jerry to help her search for her abandoned daughter, there is the sense that Mercier is struggling for any kind of narrative foothold. An over-abrupt ending reinforces this impression.