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The Field

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

This may be the first time in history that anyone has had to worry about a china shop being inside a bull. When it comes to sneering, stampeding animals - whether of the bovine or human variety - the latest to arrive in New York, who goes by the name of "Bull" McCabe, doesn't seem emotionally capable of shattering a teacup.

So what about the iron-fisted bully-cum-patriarch of the southwestern Ireland village of Carriagthomond in southwestern Ireland makes him so powerful? An excellent question, and one that Marty Maguire - as this oddly off-center central figure in John B. Keane's 1964 play The Field, which the Irish Repertory Theatre is currently reviving - never answers.

He's got the charging, snorting, and goring down pat. While slight of frame, he has no trouble raising his voice to a boom, if a whining and uneasy one, that bears all the resonance of a man who can exert enough force to make anyone believe or do whatever he wishes. But it's all for show, masking an inner pain that - wouldn't you know it? - reveals itself eventually to prove that this Bull is, in fact, a teddy bear in wolf's clothing.

Innate, angry self-assuredness is a must-have quality in this man, who tramples over a town just as his namesake might. Any hint of it is lacking in Maguire, an easygoing, bloke-next-door type who needs more than a scraggly beard to conjure the illusion of Bull's menace. In this production, which has been directed by Ciarán O'Reilly, you never understand the psychological underpinnings that might allow Bull's monstrous acts in pursuit of a four-acre tract of barely fertile land to make sense.

Bull leased the land from a poor widow and revitalized it with the manure from his animals. Now that the widow wants to sell the land, Bull believes he's entitled to it, and makes sure everyone else in the town agrees. There's just one problem: A visiting Englishman who can pay a lot more money, and who's not so easily cowed, wants to buy the land; worse, he wants to pave over it and construct a factory. This is heresy to Bull, who's not above intimidating, threatening, and outright cheating in pursuit of what he desires. Because everyone lets him do it, when things don't go quite the way Bull plans, we see just how far this town's conspiracy of silence can spread.

It's here that the play morphs from a pointed (if heavy-handed) examination of the traditional versus the progressive into a lighter-weight condemnation of societal groupthink. Keane's writing, while full of color (particularly for Bull and one of his cronies, "The Bird," routinely played here by a routine Ken Jennings) and ideas suggesting a devastating past vs. future conflict, isn't especially perceptive in its characterization of this town, its people, or the threshold in history they're all straddling.

Even so, the play has intrinsic power that O'Reilly only insufficiently taps. He finds little of interest in the characters, allowing them to be played as stock types with negligible inner life (Bull ought to have something to snuff); and he has significant trouble connecting the play's Bull-centric first section to the final scenes, in which an angry priest attempts to crack an unsolved crime for which he believes - but cannot prove - that Bull is responsible.

The priest is played by a commanding Craig Baldwin, who fiercely supplies the second act's dramatic centerpiece sermon on the injustice inherent in keeping tight-lipped in the face of evil. Baldwin's passion makes his scenes the play's most exciting if, as reminiscent of a detective story, they're also the most conventional. No one else matches Baldwin's power, though Paddy Croft, as the despondent widow, comes close; her trembling voice and despair-ridden eyes say more about Bull's campaign of corruption than Maguire manages to.

Bull shouldn't need anyone or anything to speak for him. But instead of being the appropriately immovable object who's the self-appointed keeper of possessional tradition, Maguire is as shaky as a first-time matador's hands. He never holds the stage with the relentless grip Bull supposedly has over the others, so it's not clear how he dominates his enemies, or why his prime proponents, including Malachy Cleary as an influential barkeep and Tim Ruddy as Bull's unstable son, follow him down the pernicious path.

Instead, O'Reilly wants you to relate to Bull's victims, like Mick's wife (a spirited Orlagh Cassidy) and their son (Paul Nugent), who start skeptical but are soon violently whipped into shape. But that's the easy route, not what the author intended or scripted: Keane demands that you sympathize with a proven devil. Maguire can provide neither the sympathy nor the devil, which makes this Bull - and the rest of the play - sadly mechanical.


The Field
Through July 18
Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22nd Street
TICKETS Irish Repertory Theatre Box Office at 212.727.2737