Spinning the Times sounds like a playwriting class assignment: Five women have each created a monologue based on an article from a New York newspaper. The evening is part of this month’s citywide Irish drama series, called 1st Irish, and all five playwrights hail from Ireland—a country with superb newspapers of its own, so it’s never clear why their inspiration should rely on a New York daily, aside from the logic of new-play commissioning.
The stories they have selected roam from Belfast to Brooklyn to Palestine, and the show’s underlying assumption seems to be that a compelling piece of journalism offers human interest ripe for illumination on stage—since, after all, theater is ultimately another form of storytelling.
Good social intentions, however, do not automatically lead to stimulating theater, and on the tiny bare stage at 59E59 Theaters, it’s hard to spot a persuasive reason for retelling these stories in talky solo form. Why, after all, do we need to hear an Irish writer re-imagine an American journalist’s account of an actual Palestinian’s life story, if the resulting mediated performance is not going to offer insights we couldn’t get from reading the original article?
These monologues mostly present familiar sentiments—resentments, grief—all told through garrulous self-narrators who talk at us with little exploration of who’s listening and why. A Belfast teen apprehends the situation in Palestine and grasps the desire for justice. A Palestinian man repairs violins and remembers losing his family in the shelling. An underemployed woman commits a crime of passion. A young man gets on the wrong side of the IRA, flees for Williamsburg, then loses everything in a tenement blaze. The evening’s best effort, titled Gin in a Teacup, comes from Rosalind Haslett, and, not coincidentally, she is the only writer content to have her speaker’s identity unresolved, leaving us to wonder what’s real and what’s imagined about a mysterious beautiful woman in vintage garb.
The Pride of Parnell Street, a new full-length work by Sebastian Barry, is equally constricted by form and by an infatuation with its own speechmaking. Barry, too, provides a short-story reading where a play might have stood. In this case, two monologues alternate: Janet and Joe (Mary Murray and Aidan Kelly)—unlikable down-and-outers from a scruffy neighborhood north of the Liffey—recall the events surrounding their marriage and breakup. Gradually, they journey up a shared river of reminiscences to arrive at a domestic heart of darkness: A decade ago, their intimacy was displaced by assault, heroin, prison, and AIDS. Like most of Barry’s oeuvre of memory-plays, The Pride of Parnell Street steadily unearths past traumas through fraught speeches in order to explain away underlying psychologies. Barry counters some of this dull gloom with the couple’s affectionate recollections of Dublin life, but the production is essentially a literary experience of listening. For most of the narrating, Joe speaks while lying inert in his hospital bed, halfway submerged in a grave; it’s an apt metaphor for static monodramas that do not rise to use dialogue, scenes, or the three dimensions of the stage.