nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
September 13, 2007
In modern-day Belfast, there are, apparently, more than a few folks still fighting the war of Northern Ireland. Marie Jones, the talented playwright behind the Broadway smash Stones In His Pockets, and her partner-in-crime director Ian McElhinney (also of Stones) bring us into this seedy underworld in the world premiere of Rock Doves. With her dark brand of humor coupled with her keen ear for dialogue, Jones retains her status amongst current elite Irish playwrights Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh. Rock Doves also possesses the ultimate secret weapon with a spectacular performance from its lead actor, Marty Maguire, as the homeless, mostly intoxicated protagonist Knacker.
The first striking thing about Rock Doves, now playing at the exquisite Irish Arts Center in far west Hell's Kitchen, is the terrifically filthy set design from Charles Corcoran that immediately makes you feel like you need a shower—it's set in a squatter's abode in an otherwise abandoned apartment littered with candle wax, hand-me down furniture, and pigeon droppings. The Boy (Johnny Hopkins) enters, a hooded figure who's ostensibly searching for an informer from the local Loyalist/Protestant paramilitary regime that is still fighting the war with the Catholic Church. Knacker enters "his" flat, drinking heavily, discovers the Boy, and immediately drives the Boy nuts. The Boy claims that he is a commander and needs to be treated with respect, but Knacker has far more respect for his bottle of booze (cleverly referred to as his "wife") and dismisses his phony aggression. They settle into a nice banter, abetted by a very amusing bit about watching a television that has no plug, and when footsteps arise, the Boy strangely hides in the wardrobe.
Enter Bella (Natalie Brown) and Lillian (an excellent Tim Ruddy), an aging Irish prostitute/madam and a perfectly straight transvestite, respectively, who are friendly with Knacker. They operate their respective occupations under the regime of the local thug, the unseen Loyalist commander Top Dog who, unlike Knacker, doesn't answer to anyone but his wife. Lillian stumbles onto the Boy hiding in the wardrobe, and eventually, the two get into a tiff which ends with Lillian roundly beating the Boy. Knacker does agree to let the Boy stay at the flat, for his protection more than any other reason.
In Act Two, it is quickly revealed that the Boy is far from the commander that he had faked being. Lillian is completely beholden to the wants of Top Dog, as his cross-dressing Tina Turner impression is his sole revenue source, and by play's end there is no doubt as to which side Lillian's on. Knacker has quickly taken on a role of a father figure to the Boy and goes about trying to procure a train ticket and money to get the Boy away from Top Dog's army. While the ultimate denouement of the piece is far from shocking, the emotion portrayed by Maguire at the climax of Rock Doves is moving and realistic.
The male characters are all strikingly drawn by Jones, embellished by McElhinney's direction and portrayed well by all three gentlemen, though Maguire and Reddy both have a bit meatier roles than Hopkins. Strangely, the role of Bella seems either underwritten or somewhat thankless, as Bella seems to be a board for the men to play off of, rather than to have much of a push-and-pull with the male characters.
The big flaw in the accessibility of Rock Doves is that without reading the program and the Director's note, I would have had no idea if the play was set in the past during the war between the Protestants and Catholics, or if it was set in the present, post-ceasefire. The lack of true context in the dialogue to tell us about the external conflicts that frame the piece made things a little tough to follow for a good portion of Act One.
But the reason that the piece works is largely due to Maguire's stellar work as Knacker. He is the emotional center of the play, takes us along on his journey away from his wife and towards salvation. Maguire makes the audience care about a misanthropic homeless alcoholic—no easy feat. And when Knacker sees his first chance to be the paterfamilias that he never was, he leaps towards it with abandon. Jones's script, through her rich character work, proffers that age is only a number when it comes to redemption. And, with that, Rock Doves is a worthy addition to the modern Irish literary canon.