I love being sucker punched by a show. It takes me out of my comfort zone, rattles my complacency, and reminds me I am not the all knowing, ascendant demigod of all arts dramatic that I think I am. Just darn close.
That said, “The Irish Curse” by Martin Casella now playing at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble is a play which seemingly invites lower expectations, and I walked right into it.
Set in the basement of a New York Catholic church, four men meet for their weekly support group. You see all of them are afflicted with miniature bacon bazookas, minute jolly sticks, diminutive zipperfish, petite portable pocket rockers, minuscule love-pumps, stunted happy sticks, teensy weensy bald-headed friars – aka “The Irish Curse”.
Casella’s set up is downright devious.
The audience likely takes their seats anticipating a low-brow evening of jokes about men with wee tallywhackers flying off the stage fast and furiously. In this they are not disappointed for Casella starts off playing to the groundlings.
There’s chuckles involving talk of how some men have “Happy Meals in their pants”, while others are “from the children’s menu.” And there’s snickers as one character describes his as “the size of a bee’s dick”, and another calls his a “thumb penis”.
A discussion of politics is reduced to the inches available to every politician. “That’s why they all hated Clinton,” Stephan explains. “He used his wiener for the democratic reason it was made.”
The cast is the typical “talent-fest” that the OTE is celebrated for.
Shaun O’Hagan as Stephen, a gay cop obsessed with finding “the gay holy grail”; Austin Hèbert as Rick, a jock who talks as if he should be wearing a big bow with a gift tag inscribed: “To women, From God”. Joe Pacheco is Father Kevin, a part time actor and one of the seven priests in the Church we’re informed who doesn’t have sex with children. There’s Scott Conte as Joseph, the southern lawyer raising his two small daughters alone since his wife divorced him, and Patrick Quinlan as Kieran, a young roofer, F.O.B. from Dublin who has come to his first meeting. It’s a solid cast of professionals who blithely walk the line between low laughs and high concept with aplomb.
Then just when you’re about to write off the play as an unholy alliance between Neil Simon and Howard Stern, Casella has his opening and takes his shot. You don’t even see it coming. At least I didn’t.
At the start of the play Father Kevin’s Wednesday night group finds itself locked in that holding pattern which is an occupational hazard of such bodies, when week after week of the same faces, same stories and same confessions begins to take their toll. It’s the point where a new addition is needed to upset the conundrum, one challenging its members to progress, by forcing a different perception on their old viewpoints. That “different perception” arrives in Kieran for whom the group may hold his only hope of happiness.
Casella has set us up by leading with a deceptively simple comic conceit, and when his feint has worked and our guard is down, he weighs in with a bolo punch.
(If you’re getting tired of the boxing analogies I suggest you count your blessings that I didn’t opt for a cricket motif.)
As a gay man of a certain age, Casella is probably no stranger to that shame and self-doubt that we are all capable of inflicting on ourselves, regardless of our sexual orientation. It is drawing on his own experience, I presume, that the honesty of the piece and its characters are rooted. It also appears through his choice of characters that Casella has sought to assure the work is the most inclusive it can be. His Dramatis Personae runs the gambit: Gay cop; strutting jock, the introspective priest, the southern transplant, and the young roofer, a stranger in a strange land.
The fact that all the characters are Irish or of Irish descent doesn’t work against the play’s effort at inclusiveness, quite the opposite. For the Irish are the American “everyman”, and if you question this I suggest you spend the next Saint Patrick’s Day at Molly Malone’s on Fairfax.
It is the character of Keiran who is the catalyst for the tectonic shifting in both the tone of the play and the dynamics of the group.
It is the humanity in Casella’s writing and Quinlan’s performance that brings home the bacon, revealing that the issue lurking beneath the laughter is a cripplingly serious one. That the “Irish Curse” refers not merely to some anatomically inadequacy, but that “bloody black demon” we all carry inside of us.
Forgive the strenuous segue from sports to scriptures but the Gospel of Thomas says it better than Yogi Berra:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Casella is well served by his fine cast and director Andrew Barnicle, who has the craft and the confidence to keep him out of the way of both performers and play. Casella’s work combines a pair of criteria that can usually guarantee a playwright’s success; dramatically simple = surprisingly effective. Or, to return to the boxing references one last time, Mister Casella has managed to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”.
WHEN: extended through September 16: Thursday @ 8 pm: Aug. 23 only Fridays @ 8 pm: Aug 17, 24; Sept. 7, 14 (dark Aug. 31) Saturdays @ 8 pm: Aug. 18, 25; Sept. 8, 15 (dark Sept. 1) Sundays @ 2 pm: Aug. 19, 26; Sept. 9, 16 (dark Sept. 2)
WHERE: Odyssey Theatre
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.
Los Angeles CA 90025