Fine perfs and Jim Culleton’s classy production cannot disguise the fact that Sebastian Barry’s latest piece of writing for the stage, “The Pride of Parnell Street,” isn’t quite a play. One of Ireland’s leading novelists, Barry has been writing for the theater since the 1980s, hitting it big in 1995 with “The Steward of Christendom.” But this new work succumbs to his frequent tendency toward reported action via monologue. A further concern is Barry’s focus on the inner-city Dublin underclass, a social stratum already well-chronicled by such Irish dramatists as Sean O’Casey, Dermot Bolger, Mark O’Rowe — and to which Barry exhibits limited affinity.
The central event in this play’s plot is an unprecedented (and therein lies the problem) evening of wife-beating that forever blights the happy union between Janet (Mary Murray) and Joe (Karl Shiels), who tell their stories in side-by-side monologues. Raised in Dublin’s housing projects, we hear in flashback how the couple met, had two kids, and live on social welfare. As Janet tells us in one of the play’s more creaking cliches: “It’s wasn’t much of a life, but it was a Dublin life.”
The monologue form limits Barry’s capacity for psychological development of character, in particular because we don’t know who the couple are addressing or from what time and place. Thus it’s not clear enough whether the accidental death of one of their sons was a catalyst for Joe’s subsequent descent into violence.
The only direct trigger mentioned is Ireland’s quarter-final loss in the 1990 World Cup, which, according to Janet, prompted many of the country’s men to use their wives as punching bags. Using high-profile sporting events as a theatrical device to deconstruct Irish masculinity is a dramatic furrow already well-plowed by other writers; what is particularly troublesome here is that Joe’s behaviour is inexplicable.
Barry seems to so want auds to sympathize with his characters that he describes them — perhaps inadvertently, but patronizingly nonetheless — as victims of their circumstances.
Another, contrary instinct on the playwright’s part here is to use Parnell Street — a main Dublin thoroughfare and now the heart of its burgeoning ethnic communities — as a locational hook for reflections on recent Irish cultural change and history. While these considerations are evocative and written in lovely prose, they feel untethered to any overall theme or argument. Stronger dramaturgical intervention might have helped Barry shape these observations — about everything from the new inward wave of Irish immigration to the 1974 Dublin IRA bombing — into coherent dramatic shape.
Murray is glowingly empathetic as Janet, creating a woman with emotional depth and strength of character out of what is, on paper, a not entirely credible portrait. As Joe, Shiels has never been better. An actor who made his name playing colorful, sexy thugs now reveals a deeper, more mature palette of emotions.
Mark Galione’s lovely pools of light, which guide the actors around the stage, and Denis Clohessy’s delicate underscoring help create a sense of narrative progression.
Darkness, regret, the likeable poor, a good yarn: the play offers a predictable, digestible version of Irishness to which London critics and audiences are responding well. Its reliance on such easy shorthand, however, will likely be met with sterner response when the production transfers to the Dublin Theater Festival next month.