In 'Charming Billy,' finely drawn characters breathe life into a barroom requiem
"Charming Billy," a slender, elegiac play having its world premiere at Round House Theatre Bethesda, muses on faith, hope, love and disappointment, but also sandwiches and tableware. That is, this finely drawn but not wholly satisfying distillation of Alice McDermott's award-winning novel tells how the members of a close-knit band of largely Irish American New Yorkers stake their existences on a series of beliefs, such as belief in loyalty, family, romantic certainty and God.
But anchoring the characters' spiritual yearning, the play points out, are small material consolations. The sandwich a florid-faced store owner nibbles while contemplating a loan that will change a man's life. The warm plates that make a post-funeral meal in a Bronx bar a little more bearable.
That barroom repast celebrates the life of the eponymous Billy Lynch-a soulful, gregarious poetry lover and shoe store clerk who drinks himself to death while nursing a hidden sorrow. In her novel, which received the 1998 National Book Award for fiction, McDermott used the funeral as a springboard for a keen-eyed, decades-spanning portrait of a small community's choices, allegiances, deceptions and regrets.
Round House Producing Artistic Director Blake Robison, who has introduced a new emphasis on dramatizing literature since joining the company in 2005, has adapted "Charming Billy" with remarkable skill and faithfulness, pruning characters and subplots and ingeniously reinventing transitions, while preserving much of the book's texture and many of its most affecting scenes. And yet, stripped of the forward-moving rush of Bethesda resident McDermott's incantatory prose, the tale is so delicate (some conspicuously exposition-laden lines of dialogue notwithstanding) and so quietly nostalgic that it sometimes seems likely to blow clean off the stage in a gale of wistfulness.
That said, the production, which Robison also directed, is a feast of winningly subtle acting turns. Or perhaps the term "libation" would be better than "feast," for the show unfurls largely on designer Kevin Rigdon's atmospheric Bronx pub set, with a beer-pitcher-laden table and a bottle-crammed bar flanking a window often streaked with rain.
As Billy's bewildered widow, Maeve (Julie-Ann Elliott), his friend and cousin Dennis (John Feltch) and others reminisce over drink (and food), the action periodically flashes back. Onstage, ramps emerge from the wings to represent other locales, such as a Long Island beach house where Dennis gives Billy (David Whalen) a terrible piece of news. Matthew M. Nielson's sound design, including waves and Gaelic tunes, helps establish and smooth place and time transitions.
Whalen plays the title character with eloquent understatement, exhibiting this vulnerable extrovert's humor and gift for gab, but also his ethereal and melancholy sides, revealed when he suddenly breaks into a recitation of Yeats or rants dully into the phone, fumbling with the receiver, during a drunken late-night call. The reserve of Feltch's Dennis aptly suggests the brooding calculations motivating this figure's stark decisions, and Elliott skillfully manifests the suffering-honed toughness beneath Maeve's surface fragility.
But some of the most rewarding performances explore characters at a slight remove from Billy. In a brief but vivid scene that has him seated at a desk, eating that sandwich and tapping at an old-fashioned printing calculator, Conrad Feininger manifests the good-hearted awkwardness of Dennis's stepfather, Holtzman, a wealthy shoe store owner. With her broad Bronx accent and phlegmatic abruptness, Amy McWilliams provides welcome comic touches as Bridie. (Trish Rigdon designed Bridie's dowdy funeral outfit and the production's other era- and social-niche-appropriate costumes.)
And in a brilliantly naturalistic turn that's funny and moving, Mitchell HÃ©bert plays the contrarian Dan Lynch, who plants a note of skepticism at the funeral meal (he drank side-by-side with Billy for years and his own liver turned out just fine, he announces) and yet later pays expansive tribute to Catholic priests and the way faith can alter the fabric of a life.
Warm or achingly poignant as such scenes can be, they sometimes seem precariously balanced in their theatrical framework, like the liquor bottles lining the set's rain-pelted barroom. Even as you relish the characters' idiosyncratic conversations and their reaching for faith, you long for a little more narrative momentum - for the sense, so deftly imparted in McDermott's novel, that all of us, like Billy and his loved ones, are helplessly caught in the bittersweet riptide of time.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Charming Billy "Charming Billy," adapted and directed by Blake Robison from the novel by Alice McDermott. Lighting design, Kevin Rigdon; properties, Andrea Moore; dialect coach, Terry Weber. With Kathryn Kelley, Molly Cahill Govern, Kate Guesman, Michael Tolaydo, Brianna Letourneau and others. About 100 minutes. Recommended for age 13 and older. Through Feb. 27 at Round House Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East West Highway, Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or go to www.roundtheatre.org.