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Mr. Dooley's America

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

When considering today the great American humorists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the names Mark Twain and Will Rogers aren't too hard to produce. When it comes to Finley Peter Dunne, the Chicago newspaper editor acclaimed for the social and political critiques he dispensed through columns written as Irish saloon keeper Mr. Dooley, posterity and celebrity have not been as kind.

You're undoubtedly familiar with some of Dooley's most famous zingers - "Trust everybody, but cut the cards," "You can lead a man up to the university, but you can't make him think," and "Minds are like parachutes; they only function when open." But if you know nothing about Dunne, the Philip Dunne and Martin Blaine play Mr. Dooley's America, currently at the Irish Repertory Theatre, will not correct this condition. Instead, it endeavors to perpetuate Dooley and his words at the expense of the man behind both.

Curiously, Dunne is even a character (played by Des Keogh), who has been included to narrate the show and encourage us to ponder the classic artist's conundrum: Does a creator control his creation, or - once unleashed - does the created call the shots? There's some amusing banter between Dunne and Dooley (Vincent Dowling) as they battle for intellectual dominance - at one point, each attempts to steal control of the show's sole spotlight - but it all feels like an effort to bestow artistic gravitas on what is ultimately little more than a staged book of quotes.

Most of the show's 95-minute running time is consumed with the exchange of observations and witticisms between Dooley and his "most reliable customer, Mr. Hennessy (Keogh again), over the course of several late nights in Dooley's cozy Archer Avenue tavern (Charles Corcoran designed the inviting set). And they gab about everything and everyone, from John D. Rockefeller to the Supreme Court, from men and women to love and marriage (not the same thing to Dooley, thank you), from politics and crime to coffee, aging, and death.

Director Charlotte Moore variously stages them standing, sitting at the bar, or relaxing by the stove, but can't impart much liveliness into something this conceptually staid. Nor can Dowling and Keogh, who are engaging to watch and listen to, but have nothing more to trade on than their inherent avuncular charm.

The show's sparkle and life are supposed to derive from Dunne's writings, which for the play were carefully selected and ordered to highlight the timelessness of the words written a century ago. The first act's lengthy dialogues about the differences between the rich and the poor, and the second act's extensive ribbing of political parties' prevailing stereotypes, can't help but capture audiences' fancies (and perhaps raise their hackles) still today. But newspaper pieces, even constructed as conversationally as Dunne's Dooley pieces, are not necessarily ideally suited to the stage - however relevant Dunne's words remain, their lack of theatrical spark as presented here will not likely inspire a new generation of Dunne devotees.

Stage plays like Mark Twain Tonight! and The Will Rogers Follies succeeded by translating their subjects' stinging unpredictability into live performance through improvisation and audience interaction. Granted, their subjects were as well known for their public speeches and performances as their writings. But those shows nonetheless give actors and audience alike an ability to control the proceedings that can make Twain's and Rogers's decades-old words fresh. Such reinvention is needed, yet sorely absent, in Mr. Dooley's America.


Mr. Dooley's America
Through September 10
Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22nd Street
TICKETS can be purchased by calling The Irish Repertory Theatre Box Office at 212.727.2737.