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The Quare Land

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Rufus Collins and Peter Maloney
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The relentless clashes of generations, as viewed through lenses of pride and common sense, are the fuel The Quare Land, the amusing but rudderless play by John McManus that just opened at the DR2 Theatre in an Irish Repertory Theatre production. In it, an elderly man of 90 faces off against a youngster (in other words, somewhere in his late 40s or early 50s) in a battle of wills that, as time drags on, it seems as though only the bubbles will survive.

Bubbles? Oh, sorry. You see, the oldster, Hugh Pugh (Peter Maloney) spends the entire play confined to his bath. When the lights come up on CiarĂ¡n O'Reilly's production, Hugh is already lounging back in his claw-footed tub, a washcloth draped over his head, and surrounded on all sides by a wall of suds that, at least on the downstage side, seems as impenetrable (and opaque) as packing foam. Who can blame Hugh, though, for trying to make the most of a simple luxury? (And, for the record, it's his first bath in four years.) Regardless, simple is an apt description of Hugh's lifestyle: Charlie Corcoran's set is a rundown attic bathroom with exposed brick and peeling wallpaper, suggesting that the man immersed at stage center couldn't care less about the minute details of his life.

We learn just how true this is mere moments later, when a car pulls into the driveway and up the stairs tromps Rob (Rufus Collins), who's rather more together but visibly more tightly wound. He's been desperate to see Hugh, Rob explains, and wants to know why the letter he sent was never returned. Hugh's response is generic ("Sure I don't know you from Adam"), but an obvious symbol of his mood at the twilight of his life, a symbol that Rob is not willing to accept. He's come to do business, he finally gets out after some 10 minutes of awkward, frequently interrupted small talk: Hugh owns a parcel of land "no better than a swamp" that Rob is desperate to have so he can expand his half-size golf course to a full 18 holes.

What follows is... Well, nothing of consequence, really, but rather a sketch-comedy segment underdeveloped and hyperextended. The fiery-eyed young guy against the cantankerous old guy (in a tub, no less!) arguing back and forth about how much the land is worth, how much will be paid for it, how much should be paid for it, and then, after seemingly endless and random badinage, agreeing to a deal that doesn't go quite the way either expects it to.

At ten minutes in length, this would be straining; at 75 minutes, it's practically coma-inducing. Though McManus tries to inject some decade-hopping liveliness into the duo's back-and-forth (there is, unsurprisingly, a world of difference in the half-century that separates Hugh and Rob), there's not much significance to it. It feels forced, in fact—more about grudgingly providing a bare minimum of context for the silliness than an integrated theme from which the contention between the two can spring.

That we barely get to know Rob at all doesn't help us, and it doesn't help give Collins a toehold for his portrayal. He comes across as appropriately stiff and agitated, but without the undercurrent of need that should inform Rob's every action and willingness to endure Hugh's endless, unctuous stories and abrasive hospitality. Though Maloney can generate warmth onstage, he doesn't do so here. Hugh seems intended as a raucous nonagenarian, but Maloney doesn't find the good-natured fun that might suggest a likable person beneath the annoying outer lacquer. And by screaming most of his lines, he doesn't let Hugh reveal any of the emotional depth that might give us a reason to take his side during the struggle. No, Hugh just seems like a jerk.

Conflict like that, without much build or development, gets old quickly, and doesn't effortlessly justify the dark turn circumstances end up taking. (The climactic event is about as cathartic for us as for the characters, but it's more of a stretch than we should be asked to make.) McManus's writing also has a distinctly manufactured and rarely believable quality; sometimes it's just letting the necessarily impatient Rob sit through Hugh's rambling diatribes, but sometimes it makes a grand show of sacrificing logic for convenience. For example, Hugh explains early on that he never bothers to pick up the mail on his stoop. So, of course, at some point finding a letter becomes crucial—and not just any letter, but one from 80 years earlier. And darned if they don't find it within about 30 seconds.

O'Reilly has made his staging about as unaffected as it can be, and he creates some a few dynamic moments among the static dramatic requirements McManus has imposed. But he's still tasked with transforming low comedy into high drama without possessing the raw material that might make it possible. Knowing when enough is too much is critical, and it's not clear that McManus does—and that's a deficiency no number of bubbles can cover up.

The Quare Land
Through November 15
DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street at 20 Union Square East
Tickets and current performance schedule: OvationTix

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