Spinning the Times
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 5, 2009
The three men we meet in Spinning the Times, Origin Theatre Company's new collection of monologue plays by Irish writers, all have life-or-death concerns: Kenny, the teenage protagonist of Rosemary Jenkinson's fine The Lemon Tree, is learning first- and second-hand about religious prejudice; Dawood, in Lucy Caldwell's The Luthier, recounts stories of warfare, death, and deprivation in his native Gaza; and David, the young Irish immigrant in New York City in Belinda McKeon's Fugue, tells a harrowing tale of victimization by the IRA.
The two women who take center stage here, though, are much less interesting. Miracle, who figures in Miracle Conway by Geraldine Aron, is a batty loose cannon who gets a job working for a pop star of her youth; when she mistakenly decides that he's invited her to be his date for a big awards show, things go badly (and a bit unbelievably) awry. And Nooshn, the heroine of Rosalind Haslett's Gin in a Teacup, talks about her straight-arrow sister, who criticizes her for not helping to care for their mother and for building a life around her hobby of collecting vintage clothing. I wondered why these two female protagonists in new plays by women are so inwardly focused, while the three males are caught literally in the crossfire of major religious/cultural conflagrations. Does this signify anything beyond mere chance?
Regardless, the three fifths of Spinning the Times that are occupied by these men make for compelling, worthy viewing. Fugue and The Luthier tread ground that has been covered before, but both are nonetheless rich in their humanity. In the former, Mark Byrne portrays a young man who has just arrived from Ireland; he tells his story while he watches his apartment house in Brooklyn burn to the ground, with all of his worldly possessions inside (including his passport and all of his clothes save the jockey shorts he has on). We learn what drove him to come to the United States in the first place—and why he can never go back home. Ethan Hova stars in The Luthier, as a Palestinian man trying to carve out a peaceful life in a world that refuses to yield to his nature. A luthier is an artisan who repairs violins; Dawood dreams of practicing his craft in the U.S. as he remembers pivotal, tragic moments from his past here in Gaza. Both David and Dawood are refugees because of ancient hatreds afflicting their homelands; from their circumstances can we learn compassion for problems that, here in America, always seem so far away?
The Lemon Tree artfully brings together the Palestinian/Israeli and Catholic/Protestant conflicts. Kenny accompanies his Ma to church one day, where he is roped into helping prepare care packages to send to Gaza. As he works, he learns about what's going on in Gaza from a volunteer. Playwright Jenkinson lets us discover this age-old enmity from young Protestant Irish Kenny's perspective—an ingenious and most rewarding gambit. Jerzy Gwiazdowski gives an incisive performance as the young man, making this piece the highlight of the evening, and reason enough to see this quintet of plays.
M. Burke Walker's staging of these five pieces is somewhat scattershot; in Miracle Conway, Walker and actor Rosemary Fine strive to add action to the talky piece but their efforts don't quite pan out; and in Fugue, Walker seems to have lost inspiration, leaving Byrne pretty much stranded on a bare stage with nothing to do but lean against the rear walls once in a while. (Byrne's Irish accent seems to drift in and out as well.) Overall, though, this is an exemplary program, although the framing device is hard to discern—all five plays are described in the press release as being based on articles in "the New York press" and maybe some allusion to those articles (in program notes or more directly on stage) would have helped bring some unity to an evening that felt spotty despite some very strong elements.