"The Whiteheaded Boy," which opened last night at the Kennedy Center, is an old-fashioned play produced with very modern deconstruction, commentary and irony. Fortunately it's funny. The Irish theater group Barabbas--The Company performs Lennox Robinson's sprawling family comedy with only four actors, and at first, bouncing around on the text like it is a trampoline, the performers may remind you of The Flying Karamazov Brothers attempting something very, very long. But their purpose isn't to send up the script but to play with it affectionately and bring out its amiably satirical core.
The Whiteheaded Boy (the term is a colloquialism for "the favorite"), a k a Denis (Louis Lovett), is the pride of his small-town family. From his birth, they have fawned over him, praised his intelligence and virtues, and expected him to do Great Things. Denis has taken the only course a young man of integrity could--as the play opens, he's flunking out of college.
Though Denis's sainted mother (Raymond Keane) continues to indulge him, his siblings are less conciliatory. In fact, they're fed up, particularly his brother George (Mikel Murfi), who determines to send the miscreant off to a new life in Canada, and never mind that he was contracted to marry the daughter of John Duffy (Keane again), the most powerful man in the village. Never mind, that is, until Duffy takes umbrage and threatens to sue for breach of promise.
Though Lovett has only the role of Denis, Keane plays not just Ma and Duffy but brother Peter, who appears to be half-witted, while Veronica Coburn handles one of the sisters, a serving woman, Duffy's daughter and doughty Aunt Ellen. The marvelously peculiar Murfi morphs himself like a living cartoon into thrust-jawed George, shy sister Jane and ambitious sister Baby. The actors sometimes spin in and out of character in a split second--with Keane, for example, answering a door through which he then enters.
Sean Hiller has designed a highly stylized playing space, its turn-of-the-century furniture painted on white cubes. Director Gerard Stembridge keeps the action so brisk it's as if the actors were popping in and out of thin air. Except for Lovett who, true to his character, puts a whole lot less effort into things than anyone else, yet somehow ends up the star. Stretching out in the best chair in front of the fire, while his mother kneels to toast him a bit of bread, he smiles like a self-satisfied cat.
The Irish have always satirized themselves as a people more willing to believe a romantic fiction than the grubby truth, and "The Whiteheaded Boy" is firmly in this tradition. The play was written in 1916--the year of the Easter Uprising. It postdates the publication of Joyce's Ireland-skinning "Dubliners" and "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." But you'd never know it. "The Whiteheaded Boy" exists placidly outside history--mildly acerbic, intrinsically gentle. Without an up-to-the-millisecond production like this one, an American audience would likely snooze through the play, waking up occasionally to chuckle at a pleasant joke.
The Whiteheaded Boy by Lennox Robinson. Directed by Gerard Stembridge. At the Kennedy Center through Sept. 23. Tickets 202-467-4600.
CAPTION: Louis Lovett, the Whiteheaded Boy, left, has the full attention of Veronica Coburn, Raymond Keane and Mikel Murfi.