Dublin Carol ; The Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Scrooge is inclined to blame a mean night before Christmas on a badly digested bit of beef or a blob of mustard. But there’s no doubt it’s the drink, not the food, that’s stirring up the garrulous, self-loathing protagonist of Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s Dublin Carol (at Trinity Repertory Company through January 7) on a bleak Christmas Eve when he makes a sort of confessional of the shabby undertaker’s office where he works and lives. And the knowledge that McPherson was himself burning the bottle at both ends when he wrote it adds to the small, quietly harrowing, compassionate work an extra poignance. In its premiere, this 2000 play by the author of the Olivier Award–winning The Weir opened the newly renovated Royal Court Theatre in London. By 2001 the dramatist, then 29, had ruptured his pancreas as a result of chronic alcoholism. It’s a wonder he didn’t need an undertaker himself. But since giving up the great Irish conversation greaser, McPherson, already prolific in his 20s and his cups, has written several more well received works, including the Tony-nominated Shining City and The Seafarer (also set on Christmas Eve), which opened in London this fall.
DUBLIN CAROL: McPherson, it’s clear, doesn’t need alcohol to grease the playwriting skids.
Playing McPherson’s whiskey-soaked failed father figure of a mortician’s assistant at Trinity Rep is a man you might expect to know his way around a dead body: William Petersen, star of the popular CBS drama C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation, on which he plays forensic entomologist Gil Grissom. A Steppenwolf Theatre Company chum of new Trinity Rep artistic director Curt Columbus, the film and Broadway vet is making his first stage appearance since taking on the TV series six years ago. To judge from the evidence here, he has not lost his touch. Dublin Carol is not a flamboyant portrayal of a drunk in the manner of Synge or O’Casey or O’Neill. McPherson’s John Plunkett is an ordinary man ricocheting between denial and despair, between excoriating himself for past sins and writing them off as irredeemable and therefore not worth apology. For a guy who must have spent much of his life blacked out, he appears to remember every agonizing or embarrassing detail but to lack the machinery to turn error into wisdom. And Petersen essays him with an airy if aching touch, revealing layer by layer the not unlikable man, with his mischievous wit and boozy gift of gab, and the self-described “messer” beside whom, in his embittered daughter’s remembrance, even a drunken boyfriend who reminded her of defected dad was “a fucking amateur.”
Most of McPherson’s plays are about the purgative power of storytelling; in this one, Plunkett, in two brief encounters with his employer’s 20-year-old funeral-helper nephew and one with the daughter who comes to inform him his estranged wife is dying, tells the stories on himself, conjuring a history redolent of cowardice, loneliness, drunkenness, and betrayal, but also of marred intentions and deep regret. The lyrically written work does not so much bombard as quietly captivate — and stir a compassion that its central character, however flawed, is not without. If Dublin Carol lacks the originality of St. Nicholas, with its dissipated theater critic telling tales of vampires, or the accumulative power of The Weir, whose barroom ghost stories lead to an account of loss that changes the temperature in the play’s rural tavern entirely, neither does it rely on the supernatural to catalyze its portrayal of vaguely possible redemption. The only spirit in this cameo gloss on Dickens is Jameson as Plunkett, pouring tea and shots amid his shabby holiday decorations, tries to get his nose around the stink of the past to let in a whiff of hope.
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