Play: The House

Last night we saw The House at the Abbey Theatre, the national theater of Ireland, founded by W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory in the 1920s. The play was by Tom Murphy, an Irish playwright whose works are frequently staged here, and it was amazing. We weren’t familiar with the plot, so we were totally blown away – by the script as much as by the brilliant acting and the really incredible set design.

The plot is about Irish emigration, and what happens to men and women who leave Ireland – they don’t belong in their hometowns anymore, but they don’t belong in the outside world either, and when they return home (as the characters do in this play, visiting their families and friends), they’re changed. It’s described as an indictment of emigration, and I have to agree – nothing ends well here, although at the beginning of the play, you’d be tempted to call it a romantic comedy.

The dialogue was beautifully written, reflecting local cadences and speech patterns, and really capturing the flow of conversations appropriate to where they take place – the pub, the home, the street. And here, it was as much about the silences, as what’s not being said or what’s simply understood, as about what’s actually spoken. I imagine it would take a while for actors to get the pacing of the speech down pat, but this cast had it, and it was lovely.

I think, though, I was most impressed by the set design! The first scene seemed very simple – a few platforms, a garden table and chairs – but during the scene change, things started moving by themselves, and I realized that what appeared so simple was actually a very complex dual rotating set. The two halves of the stage had circular rotating platforms in the floor, and the set pieces were built in halves on those two platforms – so they could rotate out and bring in an entire home, or a whole pub, or open up to create an inner and an outer room of a house. It’s almost impossible to describe in words; I’d have to draw a diagram of it. I can’t even imagine how it went together, because they built hallways and doors and back rooms on this as well! It’s the most intricate set I’ve ever seen – I’d say it was on par with the huge mechanized sets of a Broadway production like Wicked. Dublin theater is just plain amazing. They accomplish so much, and they do it like it’s no big deal at all. I kind of want to move here, just to be a season ticket holder to the Abbey.

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Play: Glengarry Glen Ross

Okay, so this isn’t technically an Irish play… the playwright, David Mamet, is American. However, it was produced and performed at an Irish theatre this year, so I’m adding it to the list. Theater buffs, this post is all for you.

Last night, Mr. Shifflett and I saw Glengarry Glen Ross performed at the Gate Theatre, which is known for being one of Dublin’s avant-garde theaters. It was founded in 1928 and brought edgy European plays to Dublin, contrasting with the Abbey Theatre (more on that later this week), which produced Irish works. The theater itself was small and a little threadbare on the inside, but the production was absolutely incredible.

Glengarry Glen Ross (GGR from here on out) is the story of 1980s American salesmen who are trying to sell worthless properties to poor saps over the phone. The people they’re trying to sell to are called “leads.” If you sell a lot of this worthless property to these people, you qualify for the “prime leads,” or people who are actually more likely to buy property, so you can make more money. Four salesmen work for this company, and their bosses are having a contest this month to see who can sell the most property to these leads. First prize is a Cadillac; second is a set of steak knives; and third and fourth prizes are getting fired. Obviously no one wants to get fired, but how can the guy in fourth place, Shelley Levene, sell enough property when he  can’t get the prime leads? In Act Two, however, the game changes: the leads have been stolen, and everyone’s a suspect.

This play has been compared to Death of a Salesman and The Iceman Cometh, both plays about the role of salesmen and the necessity of dreams, the American dream, even if it’s hollow. But here, there is no dream: there isn’t even greed. There’s senseless, bloodthirsty competition for the sake of winning, just because it’s what the characters have always done. Glimpses of their humanity – a character’s apparent concern for a daughter, as it’s hinted (especially in the film version) that she might be sick – are denied us. We laugh and laugh at the snappy (profanity-riddled) dialogue, characteristic of all of Mamet’s work, but in the end we realize we’re laughing at a tragedy.

Mamet’s dialogue is a wonder to hear. It’s musical, it has an incredible rhythm, and it sounds real – the stammers, the pauses, the repetitions, the self-interruptions, are all written by Mamet, and it sounds almost like real speech. It’s too real, too good, to be real speech – it’s hyper-realistic, and it’s unlike any other dialogue you’ll hear on stage. Each character has their own quirk of speech – one character interrupts himself mid-word, one character always repeats himself, another never does. It’s just plain great writing.

In this version, in addition to the fantastic acting, I think I was most impressed by the set: they built an office on stage for the second act, and trashed it. It really looked like an actual, run-down, midtown office, and one that had been broken into to boot. There was (imitation) glass scattered across the floor, papers everywhere, dripping water stains on the ceiling beams, scuff marks and scratches on the desks and filing cabinets – they even added dust to the wood paneling. It’s probably the most realistically and intricately detailed set I’ve ever seen. I can’t imagine designing or building something like that.

All in all: extraordinarily well done. I’d love to talk to some of our school’s theater classes (or just theater fans) about Mamet and producing a play like this.