Banished Children of Eve
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 21, 2010
I don't know the novel Banished Children of Eve by Peter Quinn; I see on Amazon.com that it's a hefty epic, more than 600 pages long (and weighing a pound in paperback!), and also that it's generally well-regarded by Amazon's customers/readers. After seeing Kelly Younger's dramatization of it, which has just premiered at Irish Repertory Theatre, I want to check it out.
Younger's play is more successful as a commercial for Quinn's book, though, than as a work of drama on its own. I saw one of the final previews; I was told going in that the running time was 2:15, but the show ran some 20 minutes less than that. I'm not sure who decided that cuts were needed, but the editing felt hasty and the second act, which left many loose ends untied, was quite unsatisfying. Ultimately, it seemed to me that Younger is attempting too much in this play, and he serves neither his material nor his audience very well with what he's produced here.
I should add that director Ciaran O'Reilly may well be responsible for some of the problematic editing. Certainly, he has not helped Younger's script by stopping its action every few minutes to rearrange Charlie Corcoran's ambitious but unnecessarily elaborate and unwieldy set on the tiny Irish Rep stage.
The story of Banished Children of Eve takes place in July 1863 in New York City, on the eve of the draft riots. On this fateful night, we meet Jack Mulcahey, an Irish actor who stars (in blackface) in a minstrel show; Eliza, Mulcahey's lover and co-star, a light-skinned African American who poses as "Cuban" because it's illegal for her to perform on stage; and Squirt, an African American boy who is Jack's de facto ward and also helps him busk on the city streets. And also we meet Jimmy, an ambitious young Irishman who, in order to avoid being drafted to fight in the Civil War has decided to help the villainous Waldo Capshaw commit a burglary at the home where a pretty young Irish lass named Margaret O'Driscoll works as a maid—Jimmy pretends to woo Margaret to get her out of the house; from the proceeds, Jimmy will receive $300, which he will pay to be excused from serving in the army. And also we meet a wise old black woman named Euphemia Blanchard who works at the Fulton Fish Market and knows a lot about Eliza's past. And finally there's Stephen Collins Foster, the songwriter, here a broken, drunken man near the end of his short, sad life, playing piano at the theatrical boarding house/hotel where Jack and Eliza live and where a lot of the play's action unfolds.
I think the foregoing gives you an idea of the challenge Younger has taken on. Focusing on just one of these stories might have been the better choice for a play; Younger has really written the skeleton of the movie or television mini-series that Quinn's book probably deserves. He just can't do justice to his characters and their circumstances within the confines of a two-hour play. And even though Corcoran and O'Reilly gamely try to depict all of the colorful locales the saga calls for—the theatre where Jack works, the Fish Market, and the teeming, broiling streets of downtown Manhattan—I kept on wishing that the play would stay put in the hotel.
The show is anchored by two fine performances, Malcolm Gets as the dissolute Foster (who has a gorgeous moment singing and playing "Beautiful Dreamer" at the piano) and Patrice Johnson as the timeless Euphemia. These characters exist mostly outside the main storylines, however; I wanted to know more about each, while recognizing that to do so would distract from the play proper. David Lansbury works hard as Jack, but he disappears halfway through Act Two, presumably a victim of the cuts I mentioned earlier. Jonny Orsini and Amanda Quaid are appealing as the young couple Jimmy and Margaret, but their story is underdeveloped, too.
The historical background portrayed in Banished Children of Eve is fascinating and important: the everyday lives of Irish immigrants and free blacks in New York City are depicted here with clarity and authenticity. This kind of people's history is too seldom seen on our stages, and I applaud Younger and his collaborators at Irish Rep for putting it before us. I just wish the play itself were sturdier.