How can you keep your head above water in an ever-changing world? In his new play, Boss Grady's Boys, which opened last night at the 78th Street Theatre Lab, Sebastian Barry explores this question. The audience will find themselves exploring it too, as they try to keep their heads above the water of the script.
There is no story as such in Boss Grady's Boys - the play is more of an exploration of the relationship between its two central characters. Mick (William H. Andrews) and Josey (Tom Toner), two brothers living together in their forty-acre farm on the Cork/Kerry border in Ireland, spend the entire evening quipping with each other or re-enacting memories of times gone by. These memories may occasionally be interesting (such as a disastrous fishing trip Josey took with his father) or funny, such as when the two brothers have to shoe a horse, but most of the time they are not, and their connection with the rest of the play simply isn't clear.
What, for example, is the meaning of the poker game (possibly a memory, possibly not) that Mick breaks away from to deliver a monologue a couple of minutes in length, with characters we never see again? Or the bar girl who cannot speak, communicating only in sign language? Or the woman Josey meets twice on the road who insults him at first, and later ties him up - or does she?
Barry's work is best when it focuses on the two brothers alone, and the relationship he develops strictly between them is almost always fascinating to watch. Like a marriage, their relationship has grown and changed over the decades, and when they are onstage together, you don't need anyone else there. When someone else is onstage, you wish they weren't.
Aside from all this, the production itself is good. Ina Marlowe's direction moves us effortlessly from fantasy into reality and back again, with the help of Eric Nightengale's clever lighting and set design. The dialect coach, Susan Cameron, has done a good job with each of the actors - all of whom make the world of the play believably Irish.
There is also no real fault to be found with the performers. Andrews and Toner both make their characters likable and believable, and the relationship between the two brothers never ceases to feel like one that has been building up over decades. Though Bob Sonderskov, as Mick and Josey's father, only appears in two scenes, he makes a strong impression, and delivers a powerful performance. Corliss Preston is fierce and fiery in her role (listed in the program only as "Mother"), and quite memorable, even if her purpose in the show is not entirely clear. Margo Skinner, Kay Michaels, Alfred Cherry, and Meghan Wolf all appear in much smaller roles, and do fine, but are given little support from the script.
While this production is as good as any we could expect, it is difficult to believe it will ever work as well in America as it did in Ireland. Without the same common knowledge and history, the play itself will not have the inherent meaning necessary to overcome the confusing elements of the script. Truly great plays will be relevant and meaningful regardless of their country of origin or performance, but Boss Grady's Boys cannot be numbered among them.
78th Street Theatre Lab