‘Conversations’ begin on playwright Tom Murphy at the Kennedy Center


The cast of Druid Theatre Company's production of "Famine." (Catherine Ashmore)
October 18, 2012

Spend some time in the White House, and you’ll know the feeling of hope slipping away. Fortunately for supporters of the incumbent president, the White House in question on this occasion is situated on the west coast of Ireland, where the prospects for life’s fulfillments are fading as surely as the yellowing photograph of John F. Kennedy that hangs on one of the walls.

The White House is the name of the pub in which the characters of Tom Murphy’s marvelously textured comedy-drama, “Conversations on a Homecoming,” guzzle pint after pint and take ravenous bites out of one another’s souls. For Kennedy has been dead for a decade by the time of the events of “Conversations,” and whatever wind lifted the Irish in reflected glory has long since been knocked out of them again.

The tumbledown bar, which looks as though it might collapse in a strong gust, materializes at the start of the three-play examination of Murphy’s work that Ireland’s Druid Theatre Company is calling “Druid­Murphy.” The bar has arrived for a six-performance stand this week at the Kennedy Center. The second and third pieces, “A Whistle in the Dark” and “Famine,” open in the Eisenhower Theater on Thursday and Friday nights, respectively. And all three will be reprised Saturday in a marathon that begins at 1 p.m.

On the basis of “Conversations on a Homecoming,” which opened Wednesday night, the introduction to Washington of the 77-year-old dramatist, who lives in Dublin, proves auspicious in the extreme. Murphy’s characters, castaways on the craggy shores of life, converse in the elliptical language of beleaguered types who know one another all too well and feel a lot more than they’re willing to let on. Yet layers of passion, envy, sullenness, humor and disappointment emerge buoyantly from the people imagined here, coaxed out by the illusion of Dutch courage — and the playwright’s jagged pen.

Druid, under the direction of its longtime leader Garry Hynes (a Tony winner for her staging of Martin McDonagh’s “The Beauty Queen of Leenane”), has visited the Kennedy Center with a tap-room play before, John Millington Synge’s 1907 “The Playboy of the Western World,” a cartoon of Irish country life. Murphy pulls up a bar stool a little closer to the cloudier souls of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” whose best chances have come and gone. As embodied by his most captivating figure, an embittered schoolteacher played by the remarkable Garrett Lombard, Murphy’s Ireland is an island of chronic underachievers tortured by the vestiges of their promise.

Fitting for a play involving psychic paralysis, the work is fairly plotless. Written in the mid-’80s but set in County Galway in the 1970s, “Conversations” unfolds on a night in the White House when old friends, especially Lombard’s Tom and girlfriend Peggy (Eileen Walsh), are reuniting with Michael (Marty Rea), who is back after 10 years and the pursuit of an acting career in New York City. Tom harbors suspicions that Michael is lying about the roles just around the corner, the wild Greenwich Village fetes and all the willing women. The suggestion is that Michael is on a track not unlike that of the unseen JJ; once celebrated in the town for his impersonation of Kennedy, JJ’s now drowning in drink — a “slob” in the estimation of his former admirers.

It’s via the seductive emotional flowchart Murphy creates, revealing a taut network of attachments and resentments in the town, that “Conversations on a Homecoming” sucks you in. Like the White House, presided over by a deceptively placid Missus (the great Marie Mullen), these people have let opportunity lapse, especially Tom, who hoped to be a writer. The return of the outwardly exuberant Michael is both a letdown and consolation to Tom, who can feel his failure confirmed in his friend’s.

Lombard is smashing as Tom, the performance gaining in heat as the liquor takes hold and Michael’s refusal to be pinned down inflames his hyper-articulate friend. The boozing may dull the senses of two other barflies, Rory Nolan’s Junior and Aaron Monaghan’s Liam, but the appearance of drunkenness only deepens the poignant sense of drift in these aimless hangers-on. Walsh, meanwhile, makes for a sensational Peggy, her high-pitched giggle and exaggerated sociability are clues to the deep insecurity she feels, engaged to the self-loathing Tom. Rea capably builds a high wall of affability around Michael’s feelings of defeat, and in the role of JJ’s daughter Anne, the serene Beth Cooke is successful in conveying a young woman’s efforts to buffer herself against the town’s negative vibrations.

Hynes directs this play with the stealth of a safe cracker. The treasure she extracts is the fine craftsmanship of a writer with whom we all need to get better acquainted.

Conversations on a Homecoming

by Tom Murphy. Directed by Garry Hynes. Associate direction, design, Francis O’Connor; costumes, Joan O’Clery; lighting, Chris Davey; sound, Gregory Clarke; music, Sam Jackson; dramaturgy, Thomas Conway; fight direction, Malcolm Ranson. About 1 hour 50 minutes. Play repeats 1 p.m. Saturday as part of “DruidMurphy.” Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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