The Irish Curse
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 25, 2010
The Irish Curse, as explained in Martin Casella's play, is having a small penis. (This is not necessarily the only definition of "Irish curse"; see this entertaining site for more.) In Casella's charming and highly entertaining dramedy, we are at a support group for men suffering from this affliction; we meet its four regular members (one of whom is the priest who moderates the group in the basement of a Brooklyn church) and a brand new member, a stranger who proves to be the catalyst for transforming the gathering from a fun but non-productive bitch session to a genuinely uplifting and supportive happening.
Because the play is true to its formula, there's not much more to say about it, plotwise. But don't be put off by this: The Irish Curse is a very well-crafted work, even if its arc is easy to predict from the outset, and Casella has created five exceptionally likeable characters who are a pleasure to spend 90 minutes with.
Let me introduce you to them. There's the priest, first of all: Father Kevin Shaunessy, a kindly man of 50 who has actually made some headway in fulfilling a dream to become an actor (he's been on Law & Order a few times); Scott Jaeck, in a performance that is first among equals in this fine ensemble, gives Father Kevin depth and gravitas as well as a charming twinkle in his eye. Joseph Flaherty (played with vigor and eloquence by Dan Butler, who is probably best known as Bulldog on the sitcom Frasier) is a middle-aged man whose wife has recently left him, apparently at least in part because of his small endowment. Rick Baldwin is a young, scrappy fellow from Staten Island studying sports medicine who boasts of his frequent successes with the ladies; in Brian Leahy's hands his over-the-top boastfulness rings sweetly true. Stephen Fitzgerald is a cop; he's 38 and lives with his dad, also a cop, who doesn't know he's gay and wonders why he hasn't married yet. Stephen, played to perfection by soap star Austin Peck, is tall and handsome but dreadfully insecure about his "curse" and compensates for this by being promiscuous.
The newcomer to the group is Kieran Reilly. He's an Irish immigrant (the other men, though all of Irish descent, are American-born) and he's about to get married to a woman he loves very much. But his anxiety about the upcoming wedding night has brought him beyond panic, which is why he's here, to try to learn something from his fellow victims of the curse. Of course, he winds up teaching them as much as they teach him. He's portrayed with great authenticity by the fine young actor Roderick Hill.
The play breezes by as the men joke, complain, and genuinely soul-search. This isn't just a play about body image, though that figures into it; penis size is deeply entwined with masculinity and sexuality and so the discussion here is serious, raunchy, hilarious, and very frank. Stephen, who is in some ways the play's saddest character, says:
I got a dick the size of a cocktail wiener. You know the ones that come in those little cans? I actually bought one of those cans once and tried to fit my dick inside. And I could! I'm a fag, too, and a fag with a puny prick is like a bull with tits. "Whattaya do with it?"
And Joseph says, echoing sentiments shared, I think, by many, many people:
I think, underneath, war's always been about that—don't you? I mean, medieval Europe against Islam, Commies against the West. I mean, why do you think people are still so upset about Vietnam? Really now, what does losing to a bunch of little Asian men in pajamas say about the size and power of the all-American wiener?
This is a play that makes us laugh and gives us perhaps at least a moment's pause; it's good-hearted and humane and even a little bit profound.
Matt Lenz's direction is completely undetectable, which I mean as high praise: there's a natural feel to the proceedings that is rare to find in the theatre. Contributing mightily to this is the excellent design—costumes by Michael McDonald that feel exactly right for each of these men without calling attention to themselves; appropriate, realistic lighting and sound by Traci Klainer and Walter Trarbach respectively; and especially the church basement setting by Lauren Helpern, which looks so much like the real thing that I found myself forgetting I was in a theatre as the play progressed.
The Irish Curse, which premiered five years at the New York International Fringe Festival (with Leahy and Hill in the cast, and the same director), deserves a good long life in its new incarnation at Soho Playhouse. Size does not always matter, but a spacious yet welcomingly intimate off-Broadway house like this one feels like the perfect home for Casella's witty and diverting play.