Few plays capture the soul of a nation as powerfully as "Juno and the Paycock."
In this simple story of a family beset by financial woes in the midst of civil war, Sean O'Casey conveys the poetic yearnings, the blowzy humor, the trusting innocence, the stubbornness, the festering hatreds and the tragic cantankerousness of the Irish unforgettably.
The play comes to vivid life in the Gate Theater, Dublin's production, here until July 2.
Donal McCann is a memorable Capt. Boyle, a man whose evasiveness and laziness do not strike him as any reason to lessen his aloof, paternal manner. When he strides into his shabby Dublin apartment (designed with a flair for seediness by Frank Hallinan Flood), he might still be commanding a boat on the high seas.
There is a marvelous scene where he pours tea sloppily into his own cup and his friend Joxer's. He pours the remains of a bowl of sugar into his own cup, then breezily dusts what has fallen onto the table into his hand and drops it into Joxer's cup. A king could not do it with more majesty.
For all his posturing and chicanery, McCann makes Boyle a man who claims our sympathies and affections.
As Joxer, John Kavanagh is masterly at conveying earthy humor without losing sight of the mean-spirited pathos of the character. A lean specter of a man, whose body seems to have been sharply honed by a lifetime of scrounging, Kavanagh's Joxer is impressive because it does not minimize the hardness and cruelty of what is often merely a buffoonish character.
The women are less strong. Geraldine Plunkett has a noble energy as Juno, but she misses the almost mythic stature of the character. There is a moment when she finds her slain son's cane that should shatter us. She rushes through it. Similarly, Rosemary Fine lacks depth as their hapless daughter. Maureen Potter has funny moments as their dizzy neighbor. Stella McCusker gives a beautiful performance as a grieving mother. There is also good work by Tony Coleman, Garrett Keogh and Seamus Forde.
This moving, funny production is the first major one since the Abbey did it at BAM 12 years ago. You're not likely to see a better one for a long time.
It is the alcoholic coda to a tragedy. Two Beckett-like derelicts are rolling around a crumpled Dublin tenement, paralytic drunk. One sinks hopeless to the floor; the other, grabbing a lost coin, rises in a jerky but jaunty parody of life and nips down the staircase to survival.
This Irish finale to Joe Dowling's deep-etched realization of Sean O'Casey's "Juno and the Paycock," which comes from Dublin's Gate Theater and opened at the Royale Theater last night, sets the seal on one of the greatest nights the New York theater has seen in years.
All the accretions of endearingly comic Irish acting, meticulously added over the years from the likes of Barry Fitzgerald onwards, are brusquely wiped away, and O'Casey's clowns stand realistically revealed in a merciless spotlight of pain tempered only with comic compassion.
Yes, it is still funny. Indeed, it is the funniest, most boisterous staging of the play I have ever encountered. But the ironic mingling of tragedy and comedy - and here O'Casey demands comparison with Shakespeare - has never been so much to the life before.
Even the language has never sounded so honest, so good - it flows like the Liffey and froths like Guinness. And what in inferior stagings can so easily sound like arrant sentimentality, here has true passion and love of life, as well as the punctured nobility of fine music out of tune.
Dublin in 1922. The Troubles are ending, but brother's hand is against brother as the I.R.A. clashes with the more militant Irregulars. The whine of the bullet and the shadow of the gun are familiars in the Dublin streets.
And here O'Casey places his Boyle family. The matriarchally Irish Juno (so nicknamed because everything happened to her in June), like the classic Juno also has her strutting peacock of a husband, the surly, vicious, bombastic "Captain" Jack Boyle, a wastrel, a no-good, a Falstaff with self-pity instead of self-knowledge, with meanness in place of generosity.
But like Falstaff, this "paycock," has his own parasite, Joxer Daly, a snivelling toady who would survive a Pope's bonfire.
Now O'Casey magisterially takes his two themes. One is comic and has to do with a false inheritance. One is tragic and has to do with death and betrayal. Both are symbolic of an Ireland that O'Casey loved but despaired of and was about to desert, and both are intertwined with the conviction of rare dramatic genius.
Dowling - probably Ireland's best young director - goes about his business with flawless clarity, yet charity to none but the play and the playwright. Even the setting by Frank Hallinan Flood is gorgeous in its detail but unsparing in unpicturesque reality, and the careful costumes by Consolata Boyle place this Dublin with the accuracy of a time machine.
Of course, as much as the production, almost as much as the play itself, this is a total triumph of acting. If, like me, you have had your fill of the blatherskate school of Irish acting full of tears, laughter and forget-me-nots, this one is for you.
The cast glitters like lamplight on an oily puddle. It takes the histrionics, the phony poetry from the play and gives it back with an unexpected immediacy. It sounds like Yeats or Joyce as it jumps in the air with a dying fall.
How wonderful is Geraldine Plunkett as Juno - no false heroics, no false anything, just a woman in a shawl shielding the babies of Ireland!
Then there is Maureen Potter, herself at the heart of vaudeville as the tipsy neighbor, a corrosively self-loathing Joe Savino as the ambiguously doomed patriot/informer son, Rosemary Fine as the luckless daughter, and Stella McCusker and Seamus Forde as left-over vignettes of a slain Dublin.
But best of all are the tramps themselves - John Kavanagh cringing petulantly but ferociously, like a mangy cur, as the evasive and deceitful scrounger, Daly, and, of course, Donal McCann as Boyle, the Paycock.
McCann - indelibly remembered from John Huston's last move, "The Dead" - has redefined the role for all time, or at least any future of living memory. By playing him as if he were conceived by Henrik Ibsen rather than Dion Boucicault, McCann (and Dowling) take O'Casey on a giant leap.
McCann's brutal and brutalized Boyle has no redeeming social value, about as much intrinsic charm as a Saturday night football drunk lurching from a Dublin snug, and is less pitiable than a dying pig.
Yet somehow this revisionist figure puts O'Casey's play into living focus, and, incredibly but conceivably, for the first time.
If you love the theater do not miss the play, this production or this performance. It shatters Broadway's summer sky with unexpected lightning.
The curtain rises very slowly on the Gate Theater Dublin's thrilling production of Sean O'Casey's ''Juno and the Paycock,'' now at Broadway's Golden Theater. Even so, our eyes must struggle to adjust to the dim light and to take in a panorama of poverty so grim that one might think the rear wall of the playhouse had been torn away to expose the innards of a Hell's Kitchen tenement just outside.
The tenement in O'Casey's play belongs to the Boyle family of Dublin, during the Civil War days of 1922. The home's crumbling walls are caked with slime, as if sewage had been flushed through the living room. The windowpanes, cracked and sooty, are framed by the cobweb remains of lace curtains, while the meager furniture has long since spilled its guts.
What family could live in such squalid decay? Only a doomed family, says O'Casey: In ''Juno and the Paycock,'' we watch the steady destruction of the household headed by the indomitable mother Juno and her drunken, strutting paycock of a husband, ''Captain'' Jack Boyle. But crippling poverty and social disintegration are not exclusively Irish troubles, and ''Juno,'' to many the quintessential Irish play, is not parochial. The slum in this work does bleed into the impoverished war zones of our own city and time. A remarkable Irish company, visiting under the auspices of the First New York International Festival of the Arts, is out to prove to a new generation that O'Casey's tragicomedy belongs to the world.
That case is made by a director, Joe Dowling, who has a deep vision of the play and the perfect cast to execute it. His ''Juno'' is alive at every level - as boisterous comedy, as wrenching tragedy, as blistering social commentary. O'Casey isn't Shakespeare or Beckett, but that Shakespearean brew of taproom farce and high drama materializes here, as do the bleak shadows of a distinctly modern Irish landscape. In Mr. Dowling's staging, a fizzy party scene awash in song can expire in an instant as a passing funeral procession, carrying another unnecessary victim of community fratricide, throws its gloomy pall from the street. The alcoholic buddy act of Boyle (Donal McCann) and his faithful pub-crawling sidekick Joxer Daly (John Kavanagh) can instantly veer from grotesque tableaux of degradation to burlesque routines worthy of legendary music-hall clowns.
Mr. Kavanagh's indelible portrait of Joxer is the key to Mr. Dowling's conception. A hypocritical sycophant, Joxer will do anything to cadge a drink or a crust of bread. Whenever Boyle is telling fictitious tales of his nonexistent career at sea or pontificating about politics and the church, Joxer is always there to flatter, often by tossing around the all-purpose compliment ''darlin'.'' But from the moment we see Mr. Kavanagh, we sense the evil beneath the blarney, the potential betrayer masked within the ostensibly loyal friend.
A twisted and cadaverous tramp with rotting teeth and a long motheaten coat, Mr. Kavanagh rocks his hunched shoulders in and out of his haze of booze and cigarette smoke, his beady sewer rat's eyes forever searching for the next vulturous score. ''It's better to be a coward than a corpse,'' Joxer says. A thief and a parasite but no idiot, he is the kind of rootless, selfish exploiter who always comes out on top in a human hell - even as he pretends to decry ''man's inhumanity to man.'' Yet Mr. Kavanagh still cuts a comic image: He earns laughs up to the terrifying climactic moment when, in a symbolic gesture not in O'Casey's stage directions, he performs an act akin to robbing his best friend's grave.
As Joxer's collaborator in dereliction, Mr. McCann is equally brilliant at blending robust humor with brute nastiness. This performance won't be confused with twinkling Irish rogues of stage lore - or with Mr. McCann's poetic Gabriel Conroy in John Huston's film of ''The Dead.'' Certainly, the actor is hilarious early on when Boyle fakes leg pains to evade work. And the comedy continues when the Boyles become convinced that an inheritance will bring them prosperity: Mr. McCann makes a vain bourgeois show of signing important documents and is soon pompously preaching the same pieties he had ridiculed in an earlier tirade. The blotchy-faced liar and bully never disappears entirely, however, and finally rises up with frightening force just at that moment when his wife and pregnant daughter need compassion most.
With such men about, O'Casey's empathic appreciation of his heroine is all the more striking and moving. Geraldine Plunkett's Juno, desperately trying to keep a family together under impossible circumstances, is not a plaster saint but a mortal woman whose moral strength cannot camouflage her physical and emotional weariness. When the mother finally stands alone, her last few possessions in a bundle at her feet, and demands that God ''take away our hearts o' stone and give us hearts o' flesh,'' Miss Plunkett strips the sentimentality from the line to offer a plain plea from a woman who has reached a serene acceptance of her tragic losses. Juno also makes her own use of the word ''darlin' '' - to describe a boy ''riddled with bullets'' - and the love in Miss Plunkett's inflection brings the hollowness of the ''darlin' '' constantly spewed by her husband's most constant companion into bitter relief.
Almost as impressive are the supporting players: Rosemary Fine as the Ibsenesque daughter Mary, Stella McCusker as another grieving mother and Joe Savino as the Boyle son whose crippled state stands for Ireland's past bloodbaths and whose half-mad demeanor prefigures horrors yet to come. Of particular note is Maureen Potter, a longtime Irish variety performer, who brings a priceless authenticity to the role of the gabby neighbor Maisie Madigan. Though Maisie is delightful when tippling and singing, it's not coincidence that she is Joxer's dancing partner in the party scene. When she later decides to collect a debt by walking off with the Boyles's gramophone, Miss Potter rids her previously hearty characterization of its own merry music to reveal a predatory soul.
Such is the staging's keen attention to detail that the props, set (by Frank Hallinan Flood), costumes (by Consolata Boyle) and lighting (by Rupert Murray) also play important roles in animating the Boyles's Dublin. When money is briefly plentiful in Act II, the new, bright-red furnishings and Boyle's spiffier nautical costume become mocking emblems of the affluence kept tantalizingly out of the poor's reach. By the time the furniture has been repossessed - and the Boyles's last hopes along with it - the tenement is a cave with only the eerie glow from a distant streetlamp to illuminate the blackness.
''Th' whole worl's in a terrible state o' chassis!,'' is Boyle's famous line as he stumbles around that bare room, his stupor anesthetizing him from the chaos and his own role in it. Then Mr. McCann passes out on the floor, a grimy sack of a man tossed into the night, an unnerving double for the men we'll step around in the street as we make our way from Sean O'Casey's play to the safety of home.