Reporting From Broadway: Social unrest portrayed through family conflict

The Ferryman Gives Nod To War And Peace

Watching a novel unfold in the mind’s eye is a thrilling experience to have sitting in a Broadway theater. Especially, when the story unfolding is a contemporary drama, not based on a novel. Such is the case with Jez Butterworth’s new play, The Ferryman.

Brilliantly helmed by Sam Mendes, the production imported from London, has the span of an epic work, and the universality of appeal such as we find in War and Peace. The story, set in the midst of IRA protests, marked by the 1981 hunger strike, is told through the lives of the Carney family, all three generations, living on the farm that Seamus and Quinn’s father built.

Like Tolstoy’s novel, romance sets the conflict in motion. In the first scene set in the Carney home (designed by Rob Howell), Michael, portrayed by the handsome, charismatic Paddy Considine, and Caitlin, played with quiet intensity by Laura Donnelly, are listening to The Rolling Stones, dancing with abandon, and talking through the night. It looks like a plum marriage, until we finally realize, much later in the first Act, that Caitlin is Seamus’s widow and Quinn’s brother-in-law.

Chaste as that relationship may be, it’s a glaring situation, with Quinn’s wife, Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly) suffering the inexplicable ailment that comes from being cast aside. The civil war that tears at the seams of social order is symbolized through this family conflict, through tensions that sprang up after Seamus’s murder, as if sibling rivalry set brother against brother.

Narratively, Seamus’s murder is the point of an IRA cover up. That plot wraps around the central action, the celebration of the harvest. And in the background, Margaret Thatcher, speaking on the radio, refers to the hunger strikers as “criminals.”

This picture of England, a country run amok by philistines, where its citizens are dispossessed, is Butterworth’s terrain. In his earlier work, Jerusalem, with Mark Rylance on Broadway, he explored similar themes. But where Jerusalem was hermetic in so many ways, The Ferryman is accessible, embracing a narrative style that is unbelievably captivating.

With a large ensemble, nearly two dozen actors, the ongoing life at the farm feels buoyant and celebratory. Fortunately, the tediousness of their rural lives is interrupted by the unusual appearance of a goose running from its fate, a rabbit popping out of a pocket, kids acting out, and songs we love to hear. It’s consistently engrossing.

Aunt Maggie Far Away (Fionnula Flanagan) wakes from her dementia now and then to impart beautiful pearls of wisdom, as well as some exposition. And smoker Aunt Patricia (Dearbhla Molloy) remarks bitterly about the inhumanity of life for the Irish. Throughout, Uncle Patrick Carney (Mark Lambert) demonstrates a gift for gab that comes with that territory.

As the life of the party, the kids are fascinating — each of them a distinct, three-dimensional character, from the show-off, not yet adolescent, nicknamed Cleopatra, a sassy Matilda Lawler, to Caitlin’s troubled son, Oison, a frightening Rob Malone.

Butterworth’s drama is so artfully plotted that it all falls into place irrevocably.

Torch Song

A brilliantly chiseled comedic performance by Michael Urie marks the first revival of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song on Broadway. Watching this production some 36 years after its Broadway premiere, I felt like the play I had fallen in love with then was now completely different.

In reality, times have changed much more than the play has. Written in the post-Stonewall era, and set in New York of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Fierstein’s tale about a Jewish drag queen weighed heavily on the self-loathing that characterized gay life of that era. And everything about the original production was very dark, as if people were living in a secretive world that got stuck in the dark ages.

For that reason, the opening monologues were delivered from a spotlight within the surrounding black void. And the focus was as much about delivering information about gay people, because not everyone had that awareness, as it was about the entertainment.

In this revival, directed by Moises Kaufman, each of the three acts is framed by a headline in neon. As the play opens, Urie, sitting in his brightly lit dressing room (David Lander, lighting designer), takes charge with his cute, sunny, and naturally personable style. Self-mockery is an art this drag queen has mastered. And his anxiety about dating feels so familiar that he’s someone we can all identify with.

In fact, this is a timeless story about an outsider, about relationships, and love. Arnold (Urie) meets Ed (Ward Horton) in a gay bar, who meets Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja) and does what he’s supposed to do. He marries her. Meanwhile, Arnold meets Alan (Michael Hsu Rosen).

The two couples connect over a weekend in the country — comparing notes, and partners, to some extent. Given the play’s unusual three-act structure, a lot of time is covered without requiring an immediate explanation.

By the third and final act, Ed, having been thrown out by his wife, is sleeping on Arnold’s couch, and the kid in the second bedroom is Arnold’s foster child, David (Jack DiFalco); the one he and Alan had dreamed of one day adopting, and who Arnold holds dearly. So dearly that he needs to protect him from his own mother, a domineering woman who can’t accept Arnold’s homosexuality. That role, played by Estelle Getty (“Golden Girls”) in the original production, and Anne Bancroft in the movie, is portrayed here by the remarkable Mercedes Ruehl.

If ever a woman had a mouth, Ruehl’s demonstrates grim determination, with a frown that highlights the Marionette lines of an ageing Floridian. She is marvelous in the role, putting Arnold’s maternal love for a child in dutiful perspective.

That Moises Kaufman has lifted this production into our contemporary vernacular is a marvelous gift, and one that rests on the shoulders of Michael Urie. The “Ugly Betty” alum has made gayness embraceable throughout his career, most notably as the star gazing gay man working in Barbra Streisand’s private shopping mall in the off Broadway hit, Buyer and Cellar.

In Arnold’s shyness, vulnerability, and sharp-tongued repartee, the actor finds his stride. Urie could put The Three Stooges to shame.