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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Dublin Carol

Caesar's Palace O' Fun

Dublin Carol
Jim Schlatter and Caitlin R. Antram
Photo: Paola Nogueras
Conor McPherson's Dublin Carol is a portrait of a man who is unable to repair the damage that he's done to others. It's a story that should be touching and sad, but in Amaryllis Theatre Company's production, it ends up sadly disappointing instead. It's often hard to figure out what's going on in McPherson's story, and then once you do figure it out, it's hard to care.

John Plunkett works as an undertaker's assistant, and he seems a jovial type at first. Sure, his life is a bit of a mess, but he's charming, and he's gotten by on his charm for decades. As the play progresses, however, his dark side reveals itself more and more. He turns out to be an alcoholic whose drinking has, as he puts it, "basically insulted and alienated everybody" in his family. He's not in denial, but he also knows he can't control his compulsion to drink. He understands his demons but never confronts them; as he tells his long-suffering daughter, "I know you want me to say I'm sorry, but I can hardly remember anything." His avoidance of confrontation marks every aspect of his life; even when he learns that a family member is dying, he's unsure if he can let his guard down enough to patch things up.

It takes a while to determine what the plot is and what John's motivations are. In part that's because McPherson has made his play deliberately ambiguous, with explanations and revelations put on hold. (For instance, the fact that the young woman who visits his office is actually his daughter isn't revealed until more than ten minutes into her scene.) But it's also because James Schlatter plays John with an Irish brogue so thick that it's often impossible to figure out what he's saying. In addition, the play gets a sluggishly-paced treatment here from director Mimi Kenney Smith—the 2003 Off-Broadway premiere reportedly ran 80 minutes, but Amaryllis' version runs more than 20 minutes longer. McPherson specializes in long, discursive speeches; in plays like The Weir and Shining City, those speeches can take on a hypnotic quality. But here, they just seem interminable. As a result, John becomes an unsympathetic character.

Caitlin Antram is impressive in a subdued turn as John's estranged daughter Mary. Mary is upset over John's behavior, but she never loses her temper; in Antram's portrayal, she's convincingly worn out at having to put up with him for decades. Matt Mancuso plays John's apprentice, and does the best he can with a role that has no depth. In his first scene, he does little more than smile and laugh at John's jokes; I just wish I knew what the jokes were.

Dublin Carol could be an interesting character study. Unfortunately, in this production, its central character wears out his welcome long before the evening comes to a close.

Dublin Carol runs through December 19, 2010 at The Playground at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $10 and are available by calling the box office at 215-717-2173 or online at www.amaryllistheatre.org.

Dublin Carol is the first production of the Philadelphia Irish Theatre Festival, presented by the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. During the festival, six Philadelphia-area theatre companies will present works by Irish playwrights between December 2010 and May 2011. For details on participating theatre companies and ticket discounts, visit www.theatrealliance.org/irish-theatre-mixtix.

Caesar's Palace O'Fun
Frank Ferrante
Photo: Mark Garvin
Dublin Carol isn't the only show in Philadelphia about an absent father trying to patch up his relationship with his estranged daughter. At the Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio on 3, there's a show in which a father, after nearly an hour of avoiding direct confrontation, tells his daughter, "Now it's time for 'Sorry.'" The daughter is shocked by the sudden change in her father's attitude—that is, until a compartment in the garish wall behind them opens up, and out pops the Parker Brothers board game "Sorry!"

Caesar's Palace O'Fun is full of groaners like that one. It's a show where the jokes come so fast and furious that you barely have time to analyze how corny they are. But it's all so good-natured and festive that you'll probably end up enjoying the show, no matter how hard you try to resist.

Speaking of hard to resist, there's Caesar himself, a leering lounge lizard for whom no martini is too dry, no suit is too garish, and no joke is too old. Frank Ferrante made his reputation playing Groucho Marx in a terrific one-man touring show, and he brings a bit of Groucho's anarchic spirit to Caesar. (He's been playing Caesar in West Coast nightclubs for the past nine years.)

But what exactly is Caesar's show like? Well, there are some familiar old songs (Caesar's theme song is Doris Day's "Everybody Loves a Lover"), some dancing, and some sword swallowing. The latter is provided by David Smith, who tells jokes in a deadpan style while doing a mind-boggling contortionist routine. (He also does an impressive recreation of the cigar box juggling act that W.C. Fields created in his vaudeville days—an indication of this show's loving respect for show business tradition.) And Jennie Eisenhower plays Caesar's daughter Fern, a stand-in for the audience who seems wary and horrified by Caesar's antics at first but ends up singing, dancing and spinning plates with just as much manic energy as Caesar himself.

In playing Caesar, Ferrante gets to have it both ways: he lives the quintessential swinger's lifestyle while ironically mocking it. (Robert Kramer's droll set and Beaver Bauer's outlandish costumes perfectly capture the character's intentionally tacky style.) Yet despite an attempt to give the character a back story, Caesar remains more a cartoon than a fully developed character. The script, by Ferrante and director Stefan Haves, sometimes tries too hard to be wacky. Eisenhower's role seems clumsily tacked on to flesh out the show. And the relentless barrage of jokes can get tiresome, even in a show that only runs around 70 minutes. But in the gusto he brings to his skits, and especially in his witty improvised bits with audience members (a trademark of his Groucho shows), Ferrante shows that he won't stop pushing until everybody has a good time. It's that exuberant approach to performing (and to life) that ends up making Caesar's Palace O' Fun live up to its title.

Caesar's Palace O' Fun runs through runs through January 2, 2011, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $30 and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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