Editorial Review

Review: "Da" takes a dark turn at at Olney Theatre

By Nelson Pressley
Thursday, April 1, 2010

Irish actor Des Keogh acts like a gray-haired baby as the title character in "Da," the sentimental drama about a father who drives his grown son nuts even from beyond the grave. Some father figure: In a fluid performance of cluelessness, Keogh shambles and grins, an old man happily dazed and confused.

The play is memory, and not just for our narrator, Charlie (a successful London-based writer returning to Dublin for his da's funeral). The Olney Theatre premiered this drama before its 1978 triumph on Broadway, where the four Tony Awards for "Da" included best play for author Hugh Leonard. The troupe, vastly expanded since its days as a summertime enterprise when Leonard was a frequent guest artist, is happily summoning its own ghosts in reviving this piece.

Times have changed, and "Da" is now running in the Olney's Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, an intimate space next to the historic barnlike theater (not to be confused with the wide new main stage farther away -- it's a full-blown campus these days). "Da" in the Lab feels like an imperfect fit; the new production is small, dark and deeply moody, with Charlie Morrison's lights conspicuously piercing through stage fog as if drilling through the mists of time.

The murk seems to muffle the laughter in an engaging play clearly designed as an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser. Da may be a pill, a bizarrely contented man who worked as a severely underpaid gardener for people viewed as "quality," but he's also endearing. "Love upside down is still love," Charlie says, memorably.

Although you can share Charlie's frustration at the way his "ignorant" father, as he's called by Charlie's future boss, chronically embarrasses his son, the performance shortchanges this deeply autobiographical play's grudging comic delight. What can you do but hoot at Da's unexpected and jaw-dropping politics, say, or at his chatty, ruinous appearance during young Charlie's attempt to seduce a girl?

This somber production is seldom amusing, despite some terrific acting in director Halo Wines's cast. Keogh is a genuinely odd duck, cracking bad jokes and blissfully burrowing into Da's twisted logic, and as Charlie's busybody mother, Brigid Cleary is as focused as Da is scattered. As an outcast Charlie flirts with by the shore, Rachel Holt subtly reveals a hairline fracture in her character's hard shell, and Ian LeValley makes Victorian strictness delectably flamboyant as Drumm, Charlie's dour longtime employer.

There's something heavy in James Whalen's turn as the older Charlie, though -- a brooding quality that suits the character's frustrations but not his forbearance. Whalen is a striking physical match with Drew Kopas's younger Charlie, which makes a neat picture whenever younger and older selves square off (the kind of thing that happens a lot in this play), but his recesses seem as deep as the shadows that loom around Jon Savage's cramped kitchen set design. It's a dark "Da," all right. And it feels like only half the picture.