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Kingfishers Catch Fire

Theatre Review by David Hurst - September 22, 2019

Haskell King and Sean Gormley
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Upon entering the W. Scott McLucas Studio for Kingfishers Catch Fire, a new play by Robin Glendinning receiving its world premiere in the Irish Rep's intimate, downstairs space in Chelsea, Anton Chekov's infamous maxim about guns may immediately spring to mind: "One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep." In the case of Kingfishers Catch Fire, however, it's not a rifle that's upstage center, but rather a filthy toilet on prominent display on Edward Morris' spare, dingy prison-cell set. It's not a spoiler to divulge that before the evening is over, someone will use the toilet in revealingly dramatic fashion. What may be a spoiler is that act will be the most exciting thing to happen all evening in this deadly dull drama.

This is a shame because Kingfishers Catch Fire is actually based on a riveting, real-life story of the post-WWII relationship between Herbert Kappler, the head of the SS's Gestapo in German-occupied Rome who was sentenced to life in prison for his part in the Ardeatine Caves massacre in March, 1944, and Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, a charismatic priest who became Kappler's arch nemesis by running an escape operation for allied serviceman and Jewish civilians from his Vatican office. O'Flaherty's ability to evade capture earned him the nickname "the Scarlett Pimpernel of the Vatican." After the war, Kappler and O'Flaherty struck up a strange friendship where they would discuss religion, art, the war and redemption, with the priest finally converting Kappler to Catholicism in 1949 (though their story didn't become public until 1959).

The problem with Glendinning's play is his dialogue is clunky and defies credulity, despite the best efforts of actors Sean Gormley as O'Flaherty and Haskell King as Kappler. Additionally, neither Glendinning nor director Kent Paul can settle on a tone for the piece with Gormley delivering most of his lines with a slight, comedic inflection (that doesn't work), and King remaining stalwart and angry (and more believable). The contradiction in approaches never reconciles itself and the result is a frustrating and over-written two-hander where the hands never feel equal. There's a note from the playwright in the program that mentions a visit he took to the Ardeatine Caves in 2013. He was so moved by what he saw that it prompted him to write Kingfishers Catch Fire. The irony is he makes more of a case for the Nazi, defending his actions and pointing out the role of Christianity in the tyranny of the world, than he does for the priest who motives and objectives are never clear.

In the end, it's hard to blame the actors or the director. For the most part, Gormley falls back on a comforting Irish brogue, while King has more to work with as the incarcerated Nazi. Strikingly handsome and resembling a young Horst Buccholz, King impresses with both his intensity and his physical stillness when he's listening to the priest. It's a tricky role and if there's a reason to see Kingfishers Catch Fire it's to see King and wish him another plum role in a better play soon. It's a shame he's been asked to gratuitously shuck down his boxer shorts and relieve himself on the filthy toilet mentioned earlier. That he does it with style and integrity does him credit even if it's an unnecessary bit of business.

Kingfishers Catch Fire
Through October 20
W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre at Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix