Billy Roche became well-known in the late ’80s and early ’90s for his intimate, atmospheric plays set in the southeastern Irish town of Wexford, in which not a lot happened but deep currents of desire coursed under the surface. His latest stretches this formula beyond its breaking point: While its 1960s boxing milieu is evoked beautifully by Bui Bolg’s set design and Paul Keogan’s lighting, the slight, evanescent plot, as staged by Roche himself, wafts past the audience without landing any perceptible punches.
The setting is the low-rent Delaney’s Travelling Road Show, presided over by former boxer Theo, played by the paunchy but powerful Gary Lydon. The small, makeshift family — aged trainer Peadar (Michael O’Hagan); Theo’s mouthy girlfriend Lily (the radiant Simone Kirby); and two boxers, the fading Dean (Anthony Morris) and rising talent Junior (Dermot Murphy) – exchange desultory gossip about the more colorful characters we never get to meet, from the rich local bookie to the Road Show’s fortuneteller. The unexpected arrival of Theo’s teenage daughter Emer (Pagan McGrath) offers moments of exposition via reminiscence, but because so little is at stake in the present, it’s not clear why we are supposed to care about the characters’ pasts. (Particularly missing is a hint of what motivates Peadar’s extraordinary loyalty to Theo.) We don’t even get the excitement of a few rounds in the ring.
Roche’s theme, familiar from his past plays, is thwarted masculinity, but he assumes too much complicity from his audience in understanding and sympathizing with what or who is doing the thwarting. If it’s societal, we needed more background and context; if he’s trying to make more universal points about gender, he needed to work harder than to conjure a familiar madonna/whore paradigm via the angelic Emer and the roving-eyed Lily. Kirby’s engaging, sexy presence commands the audience’s attention, and Lydon could possibly be her match, but his character and Theo and Lily’s relationship is so radically underwritten that we are left only to imagine the sparks that might fly.
Roche is not only the writer and director here, but co-producer — he started the company Mosshouse recently with Lydon to promote his own and other Wexford artists’ work. But what feels desperately needed here is an outside eye. There is a sense here of an artist trying hard to express important concerns but communicating primarily to himself.