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THEATER REVIEW

Aging failure worth visiting in `Dublin'

April 18, 2006|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

It's Christmas Eve, but yuletide and its rituals hold out little hope of redemption for John Plunkett, the alcoholic undertaker's assistant confronting the demons of his past in Conor McPherson's beautifully written "Dublin Carol." A grittier, downbeat rejoinder to the Scrooge fable, this "Carol's" deceptively spare character study rewards close attention with poignant insights into a troubled soul, in a capable albeit low-key staging from Santa Barbara's Ensemble Theatre Company.

McPherson is an established master of monologue, and true to form this three-character drama turns on the self-revelatory disclosures of John (Tom Dugan). John's storytelling is not riveting in the manner of McPherson's "The Weir" and "The Good Thief," whose spellbinding narratives unfold with near-cinematic intensity that renders the act of recitation nearly invisible. Instead, these confessional anecdotes serve a more static purpose: fleshing out the portrait of an aging failure.

Now in his late 50s, John is consumed by boredom, loneliness, feeling out of step with everybody else -- and a disposition to drinking until he passes out. Recounted amid the musty confines of Tom Giarmario's superbly detailed mortuary office set, John's stories aren't the stuff of nail-biting suspense or high drama, but the mundane episodes of a wasted life.

Needless to say, John doesn't take well to responsibility, and mounting pressures are driving him to the bottle of Irish whiskey he keeps in his desk. The wife he abandoned 10 years ago is dying of cancer and wants to see him. His employer, who rescued him from the gutter, lies in the hospital, leaving John in charge of the business.

It's sadly ironic to watch John dispensing wisdom to the boss' 20-year-old nephew, Mark (Seth Compton), who's temporarily helping him manage funerals and deal with bereaved families. The banter between them is painfully partial -- a vast gulf occasionally bridged with a joke or rueful recognition.

The play's middle section is a coldly formal encounter between John and a young woman named Mary (Marianna Palka), who we only gradually realize is his estranged daughter, making a tentative overture he can't reciprocate.

Unlike many of McPherson's narrators, John is no natural raconteur. His devils lie in the telling details that emerge obliquely -- and sometimes inadvertently -- in artfully constructed staccato fragments of dialogue.

As a result, communication between these characters relies as much on visceral rapport as on articulate vocabulary, and under Jenny Sullivan's direction all three actors rise to the challenge with commendably natural interplay.

Dugan's John nails the unrepentant selfishness of a drunk who can no longer fool himself. Untouched by the suffering of others, his most emotional moments occur in his harrowing description of the stages of a first-class bender. It's only when Mark attempts to leave that John betrays his desperation to not be left alone.

Nevertheless, Dugan's subdued, rueful reading underplays the flair for manipulation that is a basic survival skill of every alcoholic, however inarticulate. Without that magnetism, there's less compelling reason for viewers to weather the play's vagaries of Irish dialect and gradual revelations, though the effort is still worth it.

*

`Dublin Carol'

Where: Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: May 7

Price: $25 to $37

Contact: (805) 962-8606 or www.ensembletheatre.com

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

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