Painfully Funny Playwrights: Luck of the Irish and The Good Person of Szechuan


I should probably feel guilty. The world’s in a horrible mess, and I’m having a wonderful time at the theater. When the world’s in a mess, the theater’s deep sense of tragic irony gets aroused. The mess, recent weather disturbances included, is all our fault, and playwrights love nothing better than showing us how we dig ourselves into it.

Much of the fun, and pain, of Kirsten Greenidge’s enchanting, disturbing new play, Luck of the Irish (Claire Tow Theater), comes from watching her characters dig their way deeper into the emotional turmoil they’re all desperate to escape. Greenidge loves her people too much to conceal their flaws from us. Striving to do the right thing, they all inevitably succumb to the temptation to do the wrong, wallowing in prejudices that they know are absurd, and hogging to themselves griefs that would instantly vanish if they’d only take the risk of sharing. Over half a century of hogging, you can accumulate quite a pile of griefs.

As in Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, the hogged resentments accrue between blacks and whites over the ownership of a house, but Greenidge’s situation, unlike Norris’s, is neither factitious nor glib. In the late 1950s, the Taylors, a prosperous Negro doctor and his wife (Victor Williams and Eisa Davis), buy a large, comfortable home in an all-white suburb. Having already endured the traumatic results of one such experience—that time the neighbors torched the house the minute the moving van pulled away—they try to outwit the bigots this time. A sympathetic realtor finds them a “ghost buyer”—a hard-up white couple who will pose as the buyers, transferring title once the neighbors are used to the new arrivals.

Like the Taylors, Joe and Patty Ann Donovan (Dashiell Eaves and Amanda Quaid) aren’t exactly on the same page about this maneuver. Refined Mrs. Taylor thinks its trickery is unlucky; overworked Mrs. Donovan, struggling to raise six kids on her dreamy-headed husband’s intermittent construction-worker pay, thinks Mrs. Taylor is a condescending snob. Groping toward principle, both husbands spare their wives far too much of the truth.

A half century later, as the action opens, all the hidden misgivings come home to roost. The Taylors have both died, leaving the house to their two granddaughters, married Hannah (Marcia Stephanie Blake) and eternal student Nessa (Carra Patterson). A gesture meant to be courteous—inviting the now-elderly Donovans (Robert Hogan and Jenny O’Hara) to Mrs. Taylor’s memorial—lights the fuse. Mrs. Donovan, claiming that title was never transferred, asserts that she and her husband own the house.

With scenes that slide back and forth in time as the recriminations mount, Greenidge digs deeply into the doubts and fears that underlie both families’ mixed feelings; we watch momentary suspicions grow into hard shells of ingrained prejudice. The husbands, including Hannah’s (Frank Harts), struggle to uphold an ethical principle—often, unwisely, by concealing information that would provoke arguments from their wives. The wives, meantime, see every tangible moment as a symbol of the larger picture they can’t change. The Donovans never get ahead financially; the Taylors never get wholly accepted by the neighborhood. Love and honesty finally win through, but to nobody’s full satisfaction, leaving a trail of sorrows behind.

Often, the sorrows are comic: Greenidge’s affection for her characters doesn’t spare us their foolish side, and Rebecca Taichman’s stark, almost hieratic staging doesn’t stint on their absurd moments while still welding her strong ensemble into what feels like an ongoing throb of fury. My only complaint is that Taichman and her set designer, Mimi Lien, provide no visual clue to this house that all the characters covet. It’s a small quibble, with performances as fervent and nuanced as Davis’s, Quaid’s, Blake’s, and O’Hara’s to carry you into the conflict’s burning core.

Nobody could spot a tragic irony quicker than Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), Gernany’s greatest 20th-century poet-playwright. His sardonic sense of humor particularly relished the one hidden in the word mensch. A masculine noun, in everyday usage it simply means “person” or “human being” (or, more colloquially, “a standup guy”). But a pejorative slang usage, especially common in Austria and Brecht’s native Bavaria, makes it a neuter noun that means “slut” or “whore.” Shen Tei, the heroine of Brecht’s Good Person of Szechuan (Ellen Stewart Theater), is a truly virtuous gute mensch who happens to be, occupationally, a whore.

The irony suited Brecht’s Communist economic views: For him, under capitalism, all humans were whores, endlessly degraded by the need to labor at jobs for which they had no feeling. Drawing on exotic, politically volatile China for inspiration, he constructed a parable of goodness’s struggle to survive. The poetry of Po Chu-I supplied tonal clues; the bare-stage, anti-illusionist conventions of Beijing opera, exemplified for him in the performances of his friend Mei Lanfang, shaped his stagecraft.

Shen Tei (Taylor Mac), lowest of a miserably poor province’s low creatures, nonetheless can’t help being kind and generous, the proverbial whore with the heart of gold. One night, three Chinese gods happen to stop by, leaving silver in her pocket to match the gold in her heart. From it comes the play’s escalating dilemma. The more Shen Tei prospers, the more people, desperate and grasping, take advantage of her generosity. To keep her love and pity from sending her back onto the streets, she switches her gender identity, disguising herself as her imaginary cousin, Mr. Shui Ta, who’s everything Shen Tei is not: shrewd, efficient, and utterly hard-hearted except where generosity can prove profitable. Everybody loves Shen Tei; nobody really likes Shui Ta.

Love louses things up. When Shen Tei gets pregnant, by a man who treats her no better than anyone else has, the action’s eerie fusion of Camille and Charley’s Aunt becomes unsustainable. She disappears; Shui Ta’s arrested on suspicion of murder. He reveals his secret identity to the gods, who offer no solution to Shen Tei’s dilemma. As they leave, singing her praises, she shouts, “Help me!”

Brecht employed, and expected his executants to employ, a great deal of highly skilled, carefully calibrated artistry. But he never disdained the crude: For him, cutting through the pretenses of socially acceptable b.s. was always more important than refinement of detail. Lear deBessonet, directing the Foundry Theater’s production, captures the Brechtian spirit the only way Americans seem comfortable with it, by using a brash, trash-based, open-form aesthetic. Though it plays hell with Brechtian poetic nuance and specificity, it communicates his substance in raw, joyous clumps. Most of all, Brecht believed theater should be fun, and this Good Person is.

Obviously male, his shaven head gleaming, Mac doesn’t even try for a physical impersonation of Shen Tei. Yet he conveys her feelings, in the tenderer passages, with genuinely moving delicacy, fittingly balanced by his curt, mustachioed Shui Ta. While much of the cast can’t match his resourcefulness, the three gods (Vinie Burrows, Annie Golden, and Mia Katigbak) make a stylishly varied trio. And Lisa Kron, as a shrewishly nattering landlady and the self-aggrandizing mother of Shen Tei’s lover, delivers two gemlike caricatures that can stand with the best Brechtian performances in any context.