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The Kings of the Kilburn High Road

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

What's an Irish wake? According to The Kings of the Kilburn High Road, it basically consists of a man's friends getting together and drinking themselves silly in his memory. And could there be a more theatrical way to get them all together?

Jimmy Murphy has done just that in the play now running at the Irish Arts Center, after garnering great acclaim in both Ireland and London. Since the play joins together the two cultures (the Kilburn High Road is located in London, not Ireland), that's very appropriate, and though not everything about Murphy's show works, there's enough for a pretty involving evening of theatre.

As mentioned, there's really not a lot to the plot, so The Kings of Kilburn High Road focuses mostly on its characters. The most vivid are Maurteen (Eamonn Hunt), who gives up drinking the day of the wake, and Jap (Sean Lawlor), with big dreams but not much ambition. He's the de facto leader of the group, and is almost never at a loss for words. Jap sees to it that just about everything in the evening revolves around him in some way.

Of course, there's also the character that brings them all together - Jackie, the man who died. Murphy sets up a puzzle about the exact nature of Jackie's death from almost the beginning of the show, and spends a fair amount of time seeing it through. He may, actually, devote too much time to it; by the time he gets around to explaining the nature of things in the second act, the characters have really taken over and grabbed our interest. The story itself is much less important by that point, if it ever was really important to begin with.

But Murphy's writing is incisive, with a very funny first act and a mostly very moving second act. His writing for Jap, Maurteen, and Git (played by Noel O'Donovan as Jap's sort-of sidekick) is strongest; they're flawed, imperfect people who seem, at times, much too real. Joe, who shows up only a little before the end of the first act and is played by Frank O'Sullivan, and Shay (Brendan Conroy) aren't as well realized.

Still, certain moments - the joyous song and dance at the end of the first act - and the gradual deconstruction of this group of friends are deftly handled, with as much thanks due to Jim Nolan's sensitive direction as Murphy's script. The story may be about the sublimation of the Irish into the British culture, but it is dealt with so simply and straightforwardly that The Kings of Kilburn High Road never stops feeling intimate or real. It never needs to stop to point up its message, it just comes across.

The Kings of the Kilburn High Road deals with loss; the loss of life (literal and figurative), the loss of wealth, the loss of hope, the loss of control, and more. It's stirring and entertaining throughout. The play, like the people it portrays, may not be perfect, but all it gets right is definitely worth the trip.

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The Kings of the Kilburn High Road
The Irish Arts Center
553 West 51st Street between 10th and 11th Avenues
Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 20-minute intermission
Tickets: SmartTix (212) 206-1515