Actor Niall Buggy turns speeches into full-blown storms in Tom Murphy’s “A Whistle in the Dark,” braying and chest thumping as his character, a crude patriarch called Dada, urges his thuggish sons to inglorious fisticuffs as Irish emigrants in England. As a portrait of ugly brutality that stands in for a disturbing facet of a national psychology, Buggy’s outsize performance is thrilling.
So is the epic three-play project from Galway, Ireland’s Druid Theatre Company that is appearing all too briefly at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. “Whistle,” which comes at you like a 15-round bout, is the second of three dramas by Murphy and directed by Garry Hynes. The series began Wednesday with “Conversations on a Homecoming,” and Friday night’s “Famine” is the third show. All three plays, collectively billed as “DruidMurphy,” will be performed in a marathon session Saturday.
Catch them if you can. The first two plays illustrate the brave, extremely unsentimental bent of Murphy, who stands with the comparatively more easygoing Brian Friel as the acclaimed elder statesmen of Ireland’s preposterously packed stable of dramatists. The writing is ambitious, and the playing, especially in “Whistle,” is ferocious.
Emigration is the theme in “Homecoming” and “Whistle,” with the latter play finding a clan abroad (minus the mother — it’s a mannish bunch) and battling at every turn. The setting is Coventry, England, in 1960, roughly when Murphy wrote this play, which launched his career. The action takes place in a grubby flat, designed by Francis O’Connor with windows so smudgy that the inhabitants can barely see out. The place belongs to Michael, the eldest son of this County Mayo clan, and to his English wife, Betty.
Michael’s brothers have edged in, though, and now Dada’s arrived for a visit that may never end. The intrusion is wrecking Michael and Betty’s marriage — shades of “A Streetcar Named Desire” — and the plot gets ginned up by a looming street fight that seems to the bright and sensitive Michael like a pointless test of pride.
Fighting: that’s what so much of the high-strung talk is about, with Buggy’s Dada launching into self-serving pep talks that explode with bravado. On the opposite end of the dynamic spectrum is Aaron Monaghan’s Harry, the de facto leader of these gangland-style boys.
Monaghan, who delivers an amusingly squeaky drunken turn in “Conversations,” is the understated counterpoint to Buggy in “Whistle.” The taut way Monaghan plays it, the cooler Harry is, the more menacing he gets. (Shades of Harold Pinter: “Whistle” has often been compared with Pinter’s later “The Homecoming.”) Fear is the unapologetic Harry’s tool, and you expect “Famine,” set in the 1840s, to further the history of why Harry and his bare-knuckle lot have little else to work with.
Hynes pays deep respect to Murphy’s writing, allowing her actors to spend a lot of time being still: They sit around the pub in “Conversations” and stand in the contested space of the flat in “Whistle.” Hynes trusts the force of Murphy’s calculating, sometimes furious sentences, and the actors are first-rate at making the dialogue hurt. When Buggy’s Dada derides Michael’s smarts by sneering, “He’s our educated boy,” each drawn-out syllable sounds like it’s come from a nail gun.
The marvelous Eileen Walsh, so nervously chirpy in “Conversations,” is alternately flirtatious and terrorized as Betty, whose Englishness is as much a brand of weakness for the boyos as is her femininity. (“Stranger,” Dada calls her in her own home.) As the intelligent, peaceable but ineffectual Michael, Marty Rea offers a seething portrait of frustration. Gavin Drea is appealingly sweet (up to a point) as the youngest brother, whose soul is fought for by Harry and Michael, while Garret Lombard and Rory Nolan bristle as Harry’s brawling deputies.
Michael Glenn Murphy rounds out the cast as Mush, a fawning hanger-on whose presence underscores the family’s perversely magnetic outlaw character. Mush is in harm’s way when the play finally erupts in violence that is as unsettling as it is well-executed. Murphy’s vision is harsh, but his target is big, and Druid delivers his fraught history with composure, insight and frightful power.
By Tom Murphy. Directed by Garry Hynes. Costumes, Joan O’Clery; lighting, Chris Davey; sound, Gregory Clarke; music, Sam Jackson; fight director, Malcolm Ranson. Full cycle begins at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. About two hours for “Conversations”; about 21 / 2 hours each for the others. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org.