Theater

'Howie': Rapid-Fire Punches Connect

Eric Messner is a lowlife in
Eric Messner is a lowlife in "Howie the Rookie," at Warehouse Second Stage. (By Agata Peszko -- Solas Nua)
By Tricia Olszewski
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 23, 2006

Everyone knows that certain things can drive people to violence. Jealousy. Humiliation. Insecurity. But in Irish playwright Mark O'Rowe's "Howie the Rookie," a war erupts over, well, scabies. And a pair of murdered fighting fish.

Occasionally, the gang of lowlifes that traffics in Dublin's mean streets here gets distracted by a romantic prospect. But mostly the men spend their time aiming for each other's throats.

Being given its area premiere by Solas Nua, a new company dedicated to contemporary Irish theater, "Howie the Rookie" is rather similar to the group's enjoyable debut productions, "Disco Pigs" and "Misterman." In all three, there is a lot of bloodshed, a lot of profanity and a lot of furiously delivered dialogue that -- perhaps mercifully for the more sensitive theatergoer -- you might not always quite catch.

There's also a lot of Dan Brick. Brick, who has flaunted his fine Irish accent in plenty of local productions, went solo as a disturbed missionary in "Misterman" and was half of a duo in both "Disco Pigs," as he is in this show. "Howie the Rookie," however, is less a two-character drama than a pair of related monologues separated by an intermission. Brick performs second as The Rookie Lee, the guy whom The Howie Lee (Eric Messner) and his gang go after because they suspect the Rookie of infesting with scabies a mattress the buddies often crash on.

But that's the story that the Howie, no relation to the Rookie, gets to tell. When we are introduced to the latter, he's got a black eye and a split lip from the whuppin' the lads lashed out. Now he's in trouble for another reason: accidentally killing the expensive pet fish of a local thug. The Rookie is ordered to come up with a substantial remuneration by that evening; otherwise his kneecaps won't be in the best shape, either.

Playing in the Warehouse Second Stage's tiny black-box space, there's not much else to director Linda Murray's production than the actors and the dialogue. Impressively, that's all the show needs. Messner and Brick, both with good-guy faces, inhabit these volatile, juvenile gadabouts effortlessly, giving the characters the demeanors of high school troublemakers who worm their way out of punishment with quick minds and charm. They know how to tell a story, using gestures and expressions that make you laugh even as you wince.

Much of the lightness in this persistently felonious world is also due, of course, to the script. O'Rowe is perhaps best known for writing the screenplay to the entertaining if little-seen 2003 movie "Intermission." He gives "Howie the Rookie" plenty of humor, from the names and details of its characters (Avalanche, for example, Howie's sometime girlfriend, wears white ski pants despite having "arse enough for three barstools") to the leads' inflated egos ("Handsome bastard, I am," the Rookie tells us).

The production does get occasional assists from Chris Pifer's sound design. Highlights include music similar to '70s cop-show themes, which accompanies a few described skirmishes, and a gong used when the Howie, doing a quick kung-fu move, explains that he adopted his last name from "The Bruce." And, if you do have some trouble keeping up with the dialogue, Marianne Meadows's dramatic lighting is crucial to conveying the emotional gut-punch that, also typical of Solas Nua's other shows, hits you at "Howie the Rookie's" tragic end.

Howie the Rookie, by Mark O'Rowe. Directed by Linda Murray. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Feb. 5 at the Warehouse Second Stage, 1021 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-595-1915 or visit http://www.solasnua.org .


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