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Communion

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Seldom are plays' titles layered with as many different meanings as Aidan Matthews's Communion, which is being given its American premiere by the Origin Theatre Company at the Phil Bosakowski Theatre. Open up a dictionary to the word "communion," make your way through the list of definitions, and you'll learn everything you need to know about the message and meaning of this darkly comic romp along the border between life and death.

That's an area in which Matthews demonstrates considerable facility; he points up moments of heavy sentimentality with the same ease that he highlights instances of unexpected humor. But he never strays far from the dictates of his title: Communion is always clearly in his mind whether examining how family and friends come together during a crisis, how long-broken bonds can be mended, the specific rituals of a Catholic Mass, or how people of different faiths may co-exist peacefully.

For an Irish playwright writing about Irish characters, the last-named element is perhaps to be expected. But it surprisingly becomes the central thread holding the rest of the story, which is set in a fashionable Dublin suburb, together. For Jordan McHenry (Ean Sheehy), a 30-year-old medical student slowly dying of a brain tumor, faith is not a regular thing; for his manic-depressive younger brother Marcus (J. Kennedy), it's a weakness worthy of scorn; for their mother, Martha (Barbara Sims), it's the defining principle of life. Of course, clashes between the three occur frequently.

But over the course of the play - roughly the last six weeks of Jordan's life - each character comes to not only understand his or her own faith better, but respect others' beliefs as well. Yet in the hands of Matthews and this production's director M. Burke Walker, the results are never preachy or mawkish. The show's dramatic centerpiece, a lengthy Mass that Father Anthony (Colin Lane) delivers at Jordan's bedside with Jordan's family and Methodist neighbor Arthur (John Seidman) and Marcus's Protestant girlfriend Felicity (Jessica Dickey) present, is respectful of religion, the play's characters, and the situations in which they're all entrenched. The scene builds moment upon moment and words upon feelings in ways so intricate and subtle that the final occurrence in the scene (and thus the first act) feels truly intrusive, even anticlimactic.

If Matthews runs into trouble, it's in maintaining this balance between often brilliantly realized ideas and the requirements of Communion as a theatre piece. Some scenes burst with theatricality and emotion - the Mass or Felicity's removing Jordan's sweat with a hair dryer in a scene almost as erotic as it is heartbreaking, representing Jordan's final sensual experience. Other times, Matthews tries too desperately to work in an epigram or other terse philosophical rumination (Jordan's "All that lies ahead of us are the lies we've told each other in the past" is a typical example), and the play feels - if only briefly - constructed and false. An overlong and mostly unnecessary epilogue, which frantically ties up remaining loose ends, also doesn't help.

But most of Communion works so well that it's easy to forgive Matthews for his occasional lapses. He's sharply defined a complex and constantly changing set of relationships that have been beautifully brought to life by Burke's sensitive direction and an acting company providing a host of compelling performances. If Kennedy sometimes fails to tap into Marcus's convoluted mental state, his work elsewhere is sterling, and Sheehy and Sims are also especially convincing in their roles, particularly when performing together. Remaining dry-eyed through their final minutes together might rank as one of the season's most daunting theatrical challenges.

By the end of the play, scenes of such rich feeling have blended almost seamlessly with jokes both good-hearted and cruel (Marcus's spicing up of a dry religious text early in the show is particularly amusing) and life-affirming sentiment. This results in a vibrant portrait of the challenges, rewards, and occasional detriments of unconditional love, and gives Communion the depth and appeal that help it play so simply, so wisely, and so lovingly.

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Origin Theatre Company
Communion
Through January 23
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes with one 10-minute intermission
Phil Bosakowski Theatre, 354 West 45th Street, Second Floor
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444