Everyone who loves serious theater loves the idea of giving talented new writers a chance to show what they can do. The question is the timing. Too many workshops (and the notes that come along with them) can leach a show and its creator of the originality that made them special in the first place. But a premature production doesn’t do them any favors either. At least those are the thoughts that popped into my head as I sat through two recent shows by newcomers that have been given full-fledged productions that unfortunately reveal the shortcomings of each.
The first was The Butcher Boy, Asher Muldoon’s musical adaptation of the Irish writer Patrick McCabe’s novel that is now playing at the Irish Rep through Sept. 11. Muldoon, who is about to begin his senior year at Princeton, ambitiosly wrote the book, music and lyrics. But he may have bitten off more than he could chew.
To be fair, McCabe’s unsettling novel would be a mouthful for anyone. Set in the 1960s, it tells the story of a troubled boy named Francie Brady. Francie’s father is an alcoholic. His mother is suicidal. Physical abuse in the home is routine. Francie copes by bullying other kids, committing petty crimes and pretending that his life is fine.
But when a schoolmate’s mother accuses him and his family of behaving like pigs, Francie spirals into a psychotic state in which he is haunted by the images of people with pig-like faces who prod him to do increasingly horrific things.
Muldoon takes a literal approach to the tale. In his version, Francie, who frequently breaks the fourth wall to narrate what’s going on, is the only character who is anywhere near fully-realized. The others in the small working-class Irish town where he lives are barely sketched in at all so their actions make little sense.
And there’s no attempt to provide a reason for telling Francie’s story by connecting it to anything larger than itself. Which leaves us in the audience just waiting for one horrible thing to happen after another. And plenty of them do happen.
The score is a genial but undistinguished mix of Irish folk music, British music hall tunes and generic pop. The lyrics may have been more distinctive but the sound design was so poor that I could barely make them out. The elderly couple behind me cranked their listening devices so high that the audio feedback crackled around us and they still complained at intermission that they couldn’t hear what was being sung either.
According to interviews he’s given, Muldoon was working a front-of-the-house job at the Irish Rep when he showed its artistic director Charlotte Moore and producing director Ciarán O’Reilly his script and they decided to do his show (click here to hear more about that). And under O’Reilly’s direction, the Rep has gone all out with the staging for The Butcher Boy.
The handsome set is dominated by a giant TV screen on which projected images from the 1960s ranging from Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on a desk at the U.N. to Rod Serling introducing episodes of “The Twilight Zone” help set the jittery mood of that era. Meanwhile, the 12-member cast, led by the hardworking Nicholas Barasch as Francie, does the best it can, despite their singing sometimes wandering off-key.
The result is a show that might have been the hit of a college musical writing course or even of a Fringe festival but that instead now comes off as somewhat jejune.
The play has been promoted as the romantic story of two young men who hook up and then spend the following day wandering around the titular city even though each is scheduled to leave town that night. But On That Day in Amsterdam wants to be more than that. One of the men, Sammy, is a refugee who has fled his Middle Eastern homeland and is about to end what has already been an arduous journey by being smuggled into London. The other, Kevin, is an American college kid traveling through Europe on his mother’s purloined credit card.
Coo clearly wants to compare the restrictions and privileges their backgrounds place on each man but he undercuts that with meditations on art, detours into the lives of Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh and Anne Frank and a travelogue of the city; just about every museum there gets name checked.
It’s difficult to dramatize all of that in 90 minutes and so Coo falls back on having his characters narrate the story instead of performing it. Director Zi Alikhan, who describes himself as “a queer, first-generation South Asian-American, culturally Muslim theater Director” would seem to be the perfect person to stage this show. But instead of drawing me into the narrative, many of Alikhan's decisions pushed me out of it.
The story is framed as a book that Kevin is trying to write about his brief time with Sammy and so I’m guessing that placing most of the action behind a scrim is supposed to suggest the gauziness of his memory but instead it just creates a barrier between the players and the audience.
Similarly projecting close-ups of the actors’ faces on the scrim doesn't create an intimacy with them but is as off-putting as when Ivo van Hove did the same thing in his revival of West Side Story.
Neither Muldoon nor especially Coo, who has won such prestigious honors as the Whiting Award for emerging writers and the Yale Drama Series Prize, is untalented. So I’m hoping they’ll continue to develop their talent and that when the time is right, someone will give them another chance to show what they can truly do.