Regional Reviews: New Jersey
The Last Hurrah: No Cause For Cheers
The Celtic (pronounced Kell-tic) Theatre Company in residence at Seton Hall University is presenting a stage adaptation of Edwin O'Connor's 1956 novel The Last Hurrah. Critically acclaimed and enormously popular in its day, the novel depicted the unsuccessful last political campaign of Irish Boston mayor, Frank Skeffington, as seen through the eyes of his nephew whom he has invited to see it from the inside. There is good reason to be drawn to this account of the dimming of an era in American urban politics. Corrupt and ruthless, charming and much loved, skillful and powerful, the Frank Skeffingtons of the world gave a sense of empowerment to the teeming European immigrants who were the dominant force in big city urban politics through a big chunk of the twentieth century. Sadly, the stage adaptation by Eric Simonson is unskilled, and the production currently on view falls far sort of any acceptable professional standard.
Simonson's adaptation (as modified by permission by the company because it was deemed too large in its requirements) is novelistic in structure. The program lists 24 scenes. I counted several more. Several do nothing to advance the story. Particularly, the presence in two scenes of Skeffington's son Francis is totally superfluous here (although I would infer that a once clear purpose has been lost in the stage adaptation). This production has made Skeffington's nephew the narrator of the story, saddling us with a long series of monologues which are as untheatrical as they are unnecessary. There are two scenes after what feels like and should be the last scene. The first does give us some perspective on Skeffington (although that perspective is far too late in coming). However, the final scene is excruciatingly pointless. The only possible explanation for all of this is that the adapter was seeking (a la the nine hour 1982 Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby) to put the entire novel on stage. Perhaps it should be regarded as our good fortune that this adaptation comes in at a little under three hours.
While we get a good idea of what kind of guy Skeffington is, Simonson's adaptation doesn't let us know "what makes Francis run?" Without that knowledge, the adaptation has a gnawing empty space where its heart should be.
Although Celtic has an equity contract and is an affiliate member of the New Jersey Theatre Alliance of Professional Theatres, its production of The Last Hurrah is not a professional one. Of the cast of 20, eighteen are not equity members. The cast is largely comprised of amateur members and friends of the Celtic, would be actors, and students. Much of their speech is flat and artificial, declamatory and sing-song. The two Equity members (Glenn Jones as Skeffington and Pete Smith) do not raise much above the level about them. One actor (Joseph Prussak) impresses with his Boston Irish accent, but he is the only one on stage who even sounds like he is a New Englander.
It seems clear that ambition and good intentions outweighed sensible caution, and that Celtic took on far more than it could reasonably have expected to be able to handle. Still, there is no getting around the resultant lack of quality on hand.
On the positive side, Owen McEvoy has beautifully designed a complex, multiple scene set on a gigantic round stage. Although there are seats all around, McEvoy's large scale set is designed for viewing in a 270 degree arc as the set blocks off 90 degrees to its rear. The scenes are placed in different areas about the stage, and in total, they use it in its entirety, Celtic Artistic Director James P. McGlone has blocked each scene so that it can be viewed comfortably from any available angle.
An article in the Seton Hall student newspaper describes Celtic as "a community group in residence." This strikes me as a fair and accurate description. At the Sunday matinee, there was on hand a large and apparently contented audience. Any number of children (several of whom served as ushers) were in attendance. There was a palpable sense that most of those present were part of a community and held a rooting interest which could make the afternoon's proceedings palatable to them. There was an enthusiasm displayed by the entire cast that made it clear that for all involved this production of The Last Hurrah was a labor of love. Thus, if the idea of being a part of an Irish community theatre in Essex County warms your heart, then the Celtic Theatre Company on the beautiful Seton Hall campus should surely be on your destination list.
The Last Hurrah continues performances (Fri., Sat. 8p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m.) through November 20, 2005 the Celtic Theatre Company at the Seton Hall University Theatre-in-the-Round, 400 South Orange Avenue, South Orange, NJ 07079. Box Office: 973-761-9790/ online www.artsci.shu.edu/celtic.
The Last Hurrah based on the novel by Edwin O'Connor adapted for
the stage by Eric Simonson; directed by James P. McGlone