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Beer Goggles

Vagabond Players Try to Put a Good Face on an Evening of Pat Bar Tales

What Ales Them: (from left) Scott Knox, Seamus Dockery, Mike Papa, and Steve Antonsen try to ease their pain.

By John Barnard | Posted 3/10/2004

The Weir

The Weir

At the Vagabond Theatre through March 28

The writer Terry Southern had this to say on the subject of drinking: "God knows it brings warmth and companionship--to an otherwise absurdly forlorn situation." This is certainly the case with Conor McPherson's The Weir, the plot of which could be summarized: "Four Irishmen walk into a bar . . . " Indeed, four Irishmen walk into a bar, accompanied by a dramatic vehicle in the guise of an attractive young woman from Dublin, and proceed to drink, in full archetypical Irish style, an impressive quantity of Bushmills and Harp--the latter of which is consumed with reluctance and a great deal of commentary, since the Guinness tap "is fucked."

It's a bar play, attempting to participate in the long tradition of the dramatic drinking party--the tradition of Symposium and Satyricon, Shakespeare's Toby Belch, and Eugene O'Neill's Hickey--in which the personae regale one another with tall tales or passionate argument, until somebody gets drunk and indulges in some sad or terrible or outrageous confession. Such is The Weir, now playing at the Vagabond, though without the import of Plato, the bawdiness of Petronius, the wit of Shakespeare, or the dark psychology of O'Neill. It's really a thin, mediocre play, filled with commonplace and contrivance, that feels like an assemblage of interchangeable parts taken from the Irish drama collection at Wal-Mart.

The play is set in a pub in western Ireland, owned and operated by the upstanding young Brendan (Mike Papa), and frequented by Jack, Jim, and Finbar, a robust triumvirate of Irish conviviality if there ever was one. The action takes place over the course of a single evening, during which the drinkers exchange ghost stories, partially because they're drinking and need something to say--but mainly to win the attentions of Valerie (played by a quietly expressive Laura Malkus), the Dubliner, who's come out west for mysterious reasons, and for whom the stories will take on an unintended and painful significance. The stories themselves are rather quotidian, as far as the paranormal goes (eerie presence in the stairwell, eerie knocking on the windows, phone calls from the dead, etc.), and in each case the transition from ordinary bar chatter to prolonged soliloquy feels mechanical and forced. Even the conclusion, where both Jack (Seamus Dockery) and Valerie break down in tearful confession, rings hollow with cliché and reaches what I'm sure Arthur Miller would call "the pathetic," not "the tragic."

This is not to say the play is without its merits, and the Vagabond Players do an excellent job with the limited material. The script is at its best when it's between its own lines, in the intermediary banter between the heavy-handed tales--and so are the performers. As they drink--when we're not bogged down by the rather obvious implication that these ghost stories are really about "personal demons" in the psyches of the tellers--the four men move, speak, and gesture with a realistic ease, and the whole thing is believable, dynamic, and funny. They're charming characters, and with the strong performances of Papa, Scott Knox as Jim, Stephen Antonsen as Finbar, and particularly Dockery, it's hard not to like them.

In the end, the irony of the experience is that, despite the relative banality of the script, the show really was a success--a rare example of fine theatrical execution trumping a substandard narrative plan. Perhaps to the literary aspect of the mind, which can't help cringing at the various moments of indulgent sentimentality and the occasionally absurd forlornness of it all, it's something of a guilty pleasure. Sort of like drinking.

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