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After Luke & When I Was God

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Gary Gregg, Colin Lane, and Michael Mellamphy.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Father-and-son conflicts, whether organic or manufactured, are as reliable as death and taxes. But, believe it or not, they can be less debilitating and more fun, at least as envisioned by Cónal Creedon in his one-act plays After Luke and When I Was God, which the Irish Repertory Theatre is currently presenting as a rocky but satisfying double bill.

Both plays, which have been directed by Tim Ruddy, are set in Cork in the approximate present, though that says less about the works themselves than it does about Creedon (who admits in a program note that he was born there). And yes, the accents and a few specific references do peg the action as taking place entirely within a constantly developing Ireland. But Creedon succeeds at proving these same stories could just as easily be set in America, as he posits that fathers' and sons' unrealized (and often unrealistic) expectations for each other are just different, less mushy ways of saying "I love you."

Well, most of the time. There's a hint of doubt in After Luke as to exactly what Dadda (Colin Lane) thinks of either the slow-ish Son (Gary Gregg) or the independent-minded Maneen (Michael Mellamphy). Only Maneen is technically his - the older Son has a different father - and the boys' mother has been dead for years. But both young men are convinced - not without reason - that Dadda has given the other favorable treatment. Maneen's desire to roam and rollick and Son's fascination for fixing cars aren't really compatible, and may have been fostered by Dadda's oft-stated desire to keep them apart as much as possible.

Despite a few twists and a dollop or two of suspense, After Luke is little more than a thinly veiled (if advanced) adaptation of the Prodigal Son parable. And though it's enjoyable on that basis, it's an obvious, predictable retelling that the actors can't juice up quite enough. Lane is outstanding as the harried father, but Gregg and Mellamphy don't plumb many depths in their portrayals of the half-brothers, and neither finds enough comparisons or enough contrasts in the show to fuel their duel from start to (almost) finish.

Michael Mellamphy and Gary Gregg.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Those two actors fare considerably better in When I Was God, eliciting more unique personalities from a son and father in a different set of circumstances. Here, Dinny (Mellamphy) is determined to play the popular, modern soccer for a living; his father (Gregg) would prefer he played the traditional, Gaelic hurling. Of course, Dinny's complete lack of talent and knack for injuring himself on the field outrages his mother (who would prefer he chose a "practical" career, anyway), who then demands he play the safer table tennis. Giftlessness, alas, will always out, and it doesn't take Dinny long to fail at that as well.

You know the ultimate outcome of Dinny's struggles from the opening scene - the narrative's memory-play structure simply you pulls you into his decision-making process Dinny must use in his final position. Creedon develops the story well, finding a nice balance between the boy's personal desires and those of the arguing parents, who are each trying to mold him into a different model of manhood. Mellamphy is warmly funny as the dumpy but enthusiastic Dinny, and Gregg is barking perfection as the demanding father who'll get what he wants out of Dinny if it kills him.

Unfortunately, the parental squabbles don't pierce as readily as those just between the men - Mellamphy doesn't make quite a big enough jump from Dinny in showing who his mother is and what she wants. (Interestingly, his cameo as an older female shopkeeper in After Luke is among that show's most memorable.) Part of the problem with the structure of When I Was God is that the mother is integral to the story, but seldom feels like more than a figurehead overseeing a coming-of-age tale between father and son. The play would likely have a deeper impact, and be a better companion piece for After Luke, if that were the case. As such, the comic back-and-forths between the three characters here give When I Was God an almost too-casual style that needs more of After Luke's stateliness of intent.

The way the plays' two families work, while desperately appearing not to, is the strongest link between them, and one Ruddy doesn't always efficiently highlight. He overemphasizes After Luke's tragic undertones and the traditional comedic fillips (repetition, misdirection, absurdity) of When I Was God, when he might attain more unity by applying those qualities to the opposing play. You never get quite the sense you need to of functioning dysfunction in After Luke, or the pain of a fractured family that fuels When I Was God - exactly what's needed to make each tick the loudest.

But at least each play somewhat complements what's missing in the other. That, combined with the works' natural humor and easygoing manner, makes for a fine, if never life-changing, evening that's ideal for anyone who's ever been - or ever had to deal with - a father or son who saw his stubbornness as his contribution to a crucial, unbreakable bond to the man he loved most.

After Luke & When I Was God
Through September 20
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
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