Cyprus Avenue arrives firmly intact on to the Public Theater‘s LuEsther stage courtesy of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland and the Royal Court Theatre in London, England and it is quite the disturbing treat. Powerfully written by the wickedly crazy David Ireland (Meyer-Whitworth Award winning Everything Between Us) presents an anti-hero that is far more upsetting to watch than anything the devious Richard in Public and MaYi Theatre‘s Teenage Dick could dream up (currently playing at the Shiva Theatre below). This husband, father, and now grandfather, played intensely by the always interesting Stephen Rea (“The Crying Game“, Broadway’s Someone To Watch Over Me) sits quietly and meekly on a white chair in a white squared space designed neatly and cleanly by the set and costume designer Lizzie Clachan (Young Vic/Park Ave Armory’s Yerma), with impeccable lighting by Paul Keogan (Trafalgar Studio’s Novecento). His name is Eric, and he is asked to explain what happened to bring him here by the strong-minded and well spoken young psychologist, Bridget, played calmly and forcibly by the impressive Ronke Adékoluejo (Young Vic’s The Mountaintop). We aren’t exactly sure where he is, but we know, because of the intricate and impressive direction by the inspirational Vicky Featherstone, Artistic Director of the Royal Court, that what ever it is that Eric has done, it’s pretty upsetting. The violence that hums just under the surface of this man resonates in a disturbingly detached sweet mild-mannered kind of way, and in that contained space, the tension begins to mount.
The structure of the psychotherapist as confession taker within a theatrical construct always sits a bit uneasy on my brain, as the character of the therapist never really gets to resonate beyond a sounding board (just ask my scene party way back in my college years when she was stuck playing the therapist to my crazy man). But within Ireland’s play, Bridget does get to articulate ideas of bigotry and hate in a manner that is most enlightening, especially in terms of the complicated structure of Eric’s nationalistic overtones. He’s quite a piece of work, saying inappropriate things with ease and confusion, keeping us questioning his true nature of detachment. A Protestant, born and living in North Belfast angrily shoves away the title of “Irish” as nonnegotiable, while spewing hate onto the Irish and the Catholics, and layering stereotypical dimensions on the English-born Bridget by enclosing her within the boundaries of being “African” solely because of her skin tone. Their dynamic back and forth, beyond being completely captivating and hissing with Eric’s demented and unhinged anger, becomes a floor map for Eric’s story and the tangled insides of his cultural battle that is escalating out of the history books and into his delusional reality. This is some kind of warped Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that has escalated into delusional dementia.
It’s frightening to watch, especially at a time when we see bigotry and racism flying high and wildly within politics world-wide, but to see it played out within Eric’s small tight family is quite another story. His wife, Bernie, portrayed strongly by the centered and forceful Andrea Irvine (Public’s Terminus) and his daughter, Julie, played powerfully and emotionally by the fearless Amy Molloy (Finborough’s Into the Numbers) find themselves face to face with the fantastical and violent escalation of a truly demented breakdown firing itself up within Eric’s head. Caught somewhere in the tumultuous past of Belfast, where an offer of a beer can whip Eric up into a hateful frenzy of assumed bigotry and homophobia, a malady of vile self-hatred grows within. We watch in horror as the mental breakdown ratchets upward and outward, as paralleled within the impressive sound design of David McSeveney (Broadway/West End’s Constellations) and physicalized by the solid work of fight director, Bret Yount (BAM/RSC’s King Lear). The whiteness of Cyprus Avenue‘s flooring becomes increasingly stained and bloodied as the dirt is flung about. The prejudicial mud on the shoes is slowly but clearly tracked in by the dramatically disturbed but wonderfully constructed Slim, played robustly by Chris Corrigan (Donmar’s Don Juan in Soho) and the wheels of the carriage that is the centerpiece of their bigotry and aggressively unhinged hatred. The park scene between Slim and Eric, in some aspects, seems to fly beyond the boundaries of the real world, spiraling into a territory that seems oddly erratic and absurdist. It doesn’t quite fit snuggly in with the rest of the play’s rising tensions, mainly because the stress and anxiety Cyprus Avenue is creating is coming from a very real place of violence and brutal hate, and not a mutually shared psychotic break.
The play starts out with a particularly long quiet pause that seems to stagnate the senses, hanging in the air and unnerving the audience, possibly on purpose. It seems endless until Rea finally makes his entrance and the first line is thrown his way. The woman questions and accuses Rea’s character of doing nothing, although it becomes clear that his nothing is definitely something, and that something is most disturbing. The blood and dirt slowly start to stain the flooring as if seeping in from some wound below and above. The rectangle of space, first described as safe starts to feel quite the opposite, especially once the face of Gerry Adams materializes for Eric to see. And as the tension in our heart rises, we become more and more aware that the imaginary Fenian baby bastard’s time is limited and that what we are about to witness will be poundingly upsetting. The in-your-face squabbling of “she is/she’s not” is masterfully done, and perfectly executed in all manners of the meaning, diving into a breakdown of behavior where hate and bigotry gain hold and run wild. I hope I never see something like that act its way out in the real world, but on the stage, it is mesmerizing.
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