How do you like your Irish? Drunk? Brawling? Dancing a jig? Charmingly superstitious? Fastidiously religious?
Well pick a stereotype—any stereotype!—DONNYBROOK! has got them all in one convenient evening’s package.
Based on the 1952 film THE QUIET MAN, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, DONNYBROOK! takes us to rural Innisfree, Ireland where the men farm, the women keep the house, and the widow pours the whiskey at the pub. It is 1951, but an early narration assures us that the new millennium might very well have been a thousand years away. The story opens as Sean Enright (James Barbour), a former boxer from “Pittsburgh, America” arrives in the fields of Innisfree to buy a cottage and settle down to a quiet life in the country. One glance of Mary Kate Danaher’s (Jenny Powers) red hair and emerald eyes, and “the yank” is as in love with her as he is with the rolling country’s landscapes. Of course Mary Kate lives under the roof of her brutish brother Will (Ted Koch) who takes none-too-kindly to the foreigner wooing his sister.
A few twists and turns engendered by the wily local match maker Flynn (Samuel Cohen) later, and the two are married. Embarrassed and angry, Will decides to withhold his sister’s dowry. Tension builds around a clash of culture: Enright has little need for the dowry’s sum, but the town and his new wife expect him to prove his manhood by standing up for her honor and reputation, a move that would require him to break his pledge to leave boxing back in Pittsburgh and live the quiet life in Innisfree. In the first act, the ensemble sings wistfully of not having seen “a good ol’ fashion donnybrook” in some time, but the split between Enright and both Danahers threatens constantly to fulfill the town’s craving for fisticuffs.
DONNYBROOK! is a musical that trades in the jaunty charm and exoticness of the Irish countryside, an aesthetic to which the Irish Rep and director Charlotte Moore commit themselves fully in this production. The show is staged as a slice-of-fantasy exploration of all the customs and mores of a quaint caricature community: Mary Kate is scolded for skipping out on daily mass; her and Enright’s courting commences with a religious ceremony granting it consent; the single women titter in the barroom over whiskey as the men come in from the fields. Little room or invitation is made for critical insight, or for any questioning note about the portrayal of a life and people. Premiering in 1961, this is a midcentury Broadway musical, after all, and fantasy romance built upon convenient character types is among the genre’s most distinctive calling cards. These characters have names like Sean, Will, and Mary Kate, but simple markers like “The Yank,” “The Irascible Irishman,” and “The Lass” would do the trick just fine.
As we have come to expect, the Irish Rep makes impressive use of its limited space. The star attraction of DONNYBROOK! is its one set piece of scenery, a rotating cottage that is at once the Danaher home, Enright’s cottage, and the village pub, depending on the orientation of its rotation. Its walls open to reveal appointed interiors, or close to show us the home structure that looms over life in this village (James Noone, set design). The more elaborate and populated dance numbers never feel cramped, but the bedroom scene manages to achieve a welcome level of intimacy. With an ensemble of twelve filling its tiny playing space, the Irish Rep impresses again with efficient use of its space.
Committed above all to its escapist flight of fancy, DONNYBROOK! does not pause to question the broad sketches of people and culture on which it stands. It is difficult to fault a more than fifty-year-old musical for its trafficking in stereotypes, but it is disappointing that the Irish Rep did not bring a more critical eye to the choice of production. In the end, DONNYBROOK! seems an odd selection for a theater so regularly committed to powerful and insightful productions of playwrights like Brian Friel and Eugene O’Neill.
Music and Lyrics by Johnny Burke
Book by Robert E. McEnroe
Directed by Charlotte Moore
February 7 – March 31, 2013
The Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
New York, NY, 10011