Life's Just Swill

The rough conversation and odd behavior permeating War might prove a tad disconcerting for those whose image of Ireland is of modest pastel houses and gently rolling cobblestone streets snuggled together under clouds of cottony mist. Billed as "a contemporary, slice-of-life comedy," Roddy Doyle's work simmers with everyday discontent, vulgar insults and narrow-minded arguments. And the two-hour piece, which is being presented by the Hunger Artists Ensemble at the cozy MK Ultra Theatre, is filled with humdrum, beaten-down urban types instead of romantically hopeful bog-dwellers who, though barely surviving on a diet of roots and kelp, feast on a soulful buffet of memories and dreams.

Despite the fact that the dialogue seems overly pedestrian and the action focuses on minor, inconsequential conflicts, the work seems intended to paint a portrait of modern Irish life that ignores and even rejects accepted traditions and national myths. A somewhat celebrated novelist who penned a 1980s trilogy about life in a Dublin suburb (The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van were all subsequently made into movies), Doyle deliberately peels away the preconceived notions of Irish life that even some of the Irish no longer hold dear. "Money, rather than memory, is the new Irish obsession," one reviewer wrote of Doyle's latest novel, A Star Called Henry.

And the same could be said of the denizens of the North Dublin pub who engage in an evening-long trivia game that demonstrates their eagerness to abandon their collective, expansive past in favor of minuscule pursuits that promise instant gratification. While the Hunger Artists' version of War sometimes lacks the edginess and at-loose-ends despair that should underlie the characters' descent into banality, the sixteen actors render naturalistic portrayals that engage even as they stultify. And director Kevin Stephens carefully orchestrates the action to contrast scenes of domestic discord with those that occur simultaneously in the watering hole's fetid environs: Two-thirds of the tiny stage holds a marvelously detailed pub, and the other third is occupied by a confining household kitchen (the setting was designed by Raymond Fernandez).

The action revolves around a working-class sort who clings to his cherished pastimes with quasi-religious conviction. God help the man or woman who comes between George (Steve Gravatt) and his hopes of claiming the trivia contest's grand prize (a teakettle) or the local chip-and-putt tournament's top reward (a Christmas turkey). Determined, boorish and bellicose, the swaggering hulk alternately cajoles, bullies and pleads with anyone who stands to play a part in his scenario of small-time success. When the benign, slow-witted Tommy (Jeffrey D. Patton) or bolo-tie-wearing bandito wannabe Bertie (Steve Ryan) makes a comment that rubs George the wrong way, he nearly starts a barroom brawl. And he isn't exactly the picture of forbearance at home, either. He berates his wife, Briget (Janet Chamberlain), when she hints of aspiring to more than sitting around the kitchen table for the rest of her life, and ignores his tarted-up, woefully directionless daughter, Yvonne (Jessica C. Robblee), who tries to bond with her dad by participating in his beloved pub games with a table full of her friends. Eventually, George the Loudmouth's bleak vision of life becomes the overriding lens through which many of his friends and family members view their own circumstances.

While the performers manage to form a satisfactory ensemble, some characters are more memorable than others. Gerard Gibney is effective as Leo, the soft-spoken barkeep; Alisa Templeton finds a measure of pitiable haughtiness as Niamh, a spurned clubber; Robert Burns Brown is charmingly inept as Denis, keeper of questions and scores; Glen Eastwood is affecting as Martin, a regular bloke who can't find a doctor capable of treating his sudden crying episodes; and Gravatt is appropriately loutish when pushed to George's temperamental limits, which is fairly often and, unfortunately, nearly always in the same direction. Chamberlain's portrayal is the most interesting of all: While silently seated on one side of the stage, she's capable of drawing our attention merely by flipping through the pages in Briget's composition book as the assorted barflies prattle on a few feet away.

For all of its atmospheric detail, though, the production sometimes fails to articulate the characters' deeper, shared struggles. It's as if the actors, careful to get every behavioral aspect just so, have become prisoners of idiosyncrasy rather than conveyors of universal truth. By placing as great an emphasis on what binds them to their situation as they have taken care to reproduce its trappings, Stephens and company might yet put a fresh face on Doyle's tarnished icons of blarney.

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Jim Lillie

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