Stage: Wednesday, August 24, 2005
Jim Covault, Justin Flowers, and Trey Walpole star in Conor McPherson’s ‘Port Authority,’ at Stage West.
Emerald Aisles

Stage West turns into a comfy pub to accommodate an Irish master’s bar talk.


A common complaint among people who profess to dislike theater is: “Why should I pay money to sit and watch people talk for two hours?” For these folks, Stage West has just the show — a show, that is, to confirm their worst fears.

Acclaimed Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s Port Authority could hardly be more simple. It’s short, at around 90 minutes, and it has no intermission and is about three men of various ages speaking about pivotal circumstances in their lives that, at first listen, seem hardly connected to one another or to themes of any grand significance. Taking the stage without any sound or lighting cues, the players never acknowledge one another, opting instead to address audience members directly as if we were sitting on a stool next to them at a neighborhood pub. Surely ticketbuyers could create a similar scenario at a local watering hole, with the added bonus that their hard-earned cash would go toward a few pints to ensure that the yammering sounds more engrossing than it may actually be.

And yet, with scripts like The Weir and St. Nicholas (both of which have been produced by Stage West in years past), McPherson has earned his voluminous international kudos by proving that, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens, it’s not the ideas in all that chatter that matter, but the chatter itself. The archetypal McPherson anti-hero is the first-person narrator who reveals as much about himself as about the story by what he emphasizes, soft-pedals, and conceals.

To sustain his protagonist, the playwright draws inspiration from two constantly intertwining rivers. It’s impossible to gauge which cultural stereotype sticks to the Irish more steadfastly — that they are a nation of tireless talkers or of heavy drinkers. Sensitivity aside, the oral tradition in both senses — that is, the words that come out and the fermented grain liquid that goes in — continues to flourish on the Emerald Isle even in the age of instant messaging and treat-your-body-like-a-temple abstinence.

The two appear to be intimately connected. Even the most quotidian encounter can assume mythic proportions when fueled by enough Scrumpy Jack cider, the libation preferred by the youngest character in Port Authority. McPherson believes that the value of stage talk lies less in its metaphorical depth than in the weight of truthful detail that’s accumulated. And the modest power in Stage West’s deliberately low-key production, helmed by veteran director Jerry Russell, is in the slow, quiet way in which that accumulation takes shape.

Summarizing the plot of Port Authority is almost impossible, except to say it’s set around contemporary Dublin and concerns a different event in each man’s life that may or may not be pivotal. Even the men themselves don’t seem quite sure. Twentysomething Kevin (Justin Flowers) has just moved out of his parents’ home to live among a loose collective of punk and metal musicians whose louche, hard-drinking lifestyle is clearly more important to them than their art. He falls in lust — and, perhaps, love — with a female housemate whose ease amid the camaraderie of roosters fascinates him. Middle-aged Dermot (Trey Walpole) is a sarcastic sad sack whose new job spirits him away from his ever-patient wife and sends him on a gin- and cocaine-stoked junket to see a superstar Irish rock band called The Bangers at a Los Angeles concert. A case of mistaken identity, we learn, is the reason behind his glamorous employment. And septuagenarian widower Joe (Jim Covault), from his vantage point in a Catholic retirement home, tries to stop obsessing over the suspicion that the woman he married was not the wife whom fate had actually intended for him. A photograph mailed to the home haunts him with the possibility that, simply by lacking courage, he has denied himself love.

Even for experienced theatergoers accustomed to long and intricate monologues, the alternating stories in Port Authority require an unusual dedication of attention. It helps if you can get the little jolts of pleasure that the language of a well-observed description can give — the memory of “ham and boiled eggs and brown bread” at a meal or the boss’ wife’s dress, which looks like “a scrap of pink tissue paper,” or the “smell of cider piss” that permeates a backyard during an all-night bacchanal. Happily, director Jerry Russell has not encouraged his actors to adopt the heavy Irish brogue that would doubtlessly be a natural accompaniment but also an impediment to American ears. Tiptoeing lightly through the four-leaf clover, Flowers and Walpole are physically and temperamentally well-suited to their roles. The former exudes charismatic impudence; the latter locates a smart-ass irreverence just before its decline into full-blown cynicism. Curiously, Covault, an actor who’s naturally soft-spoken, seems out of place in the conversational environment established by this production. This is in part because he appears many years younger than Joe’s age and, with his cane and shaky hands, can’t seem to maintain a subtle but consistent rhythm of creaky old-age mannerisms.

In the end, Port Authority is the kind of show whose impact only starts to creep up on you after the performers have taken their bows. This is appropriate, because the trio of storytellers at work here are all troubled by missed opportunities in retrospect. Disappointment and the crippling power of fear may not be the most dynamic themes, but when viewed with the kind of merciless scrutiny that Conor McPherson applies to them, they just might be the dominant threads woven through almost everyone’s lives. You can perhaps claim to be underwhelmed by the thoughtful minimalism of Stage West’s production, but there are some glittering and scarily accurate gems of insight available for the person who’s determined to find them.

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