Los Angeles Times

"BE THERE"

  

Irish Cliches at Their Best and Worst

It's become difficult to depict the Irish without cliches or extremes. A Martian visiting Earth would assume from watching recent movies such as "Waking Ned Devine" and "Angela's Ashes," or the new Anne Pie one-act plays, "The Liberation of Jerome Gleason" and "The Viewing," at the American Renegade Theatre, that the folks from the Emerald Isle are either the planet's happiest or most miserable humans.

It doesn't matter if the Irish live in the homeland or not: These characters live on the U.S. East Coast, but it feels as if a Dublin pub or church is right around the corner.

In the case of "Liberation," this feeling works effectively to underscore the pressures on recent immigrants Sybil and Jerome Gleason (Karin Gault and Barry Thompson), who are struggling to make ends meet in Hartford, Conn., in the unfortunate year of 1930.

They're so incompatible from the start that the play risks making us wonder why they married in the first place. Sybil morbidly clips obituaries of local folks she despises, which is just about everyone. Jerome's head is in his poetry, not a 9-to-5 job, and his heart is driven by plans to adopt two children from Bostonian nuns.

Although Sybil has no friends, Jerome has them in droves, including slow-minded but jolly Billy (Mark Hatfield). Sounds like the extreme cliches in action again, but Pie modulates her marital drama so that Jerome and Sybil are able to function like a real married couple in the most poisonous kind of wedlock.

Somewhat awkwardly, we learn that Sybil's own Ulster upbringing was so awful that she knew motherhood wasn't for her, yet has never been fully honest about this with Jerome, who wants nothing more than to be a father.

Sybil's past utterly clouds her present, but Gault can't manage to add more dimension to her. Jerome seems a long way from his dreams, and Thompson makes the gap achingly, vividly palpable, and even makes believable an ending that tries to spin a tragedy into a happy end. So does director Emilio Borelli, a consistently fine actor's director.

By comparison, "The Viewing" is a piffle, a sideshow and, at its worst, a poor excuse for actors to nearly lose control. It more directly plays on Irish stereotypes--in this case, the habit of turning a funeral into comedy.

Widow Molly (Lorraine Shaw) has dressed up the corpse of her dear departed husband, Gerald, to look buffoonish, complete with a remote control in his stiff fingers. (Director T.J. Castronovo's best touch is to never show us the body and let us imagine it through the actors' reactions.) Sister-in-law Margaret (Theresa Garcia) finds it all so improper, while niece Mary (Hillary Klein, ably replacing Lori Morrissey) takes it all in stride.

Nothing much happens until gay son Thomas (Brian Baldini) shows up with his San Francisco boyfriend Brian (Joe Spinoza), followed by Margaret's drunk thespian husband, William (Michael Pataki). Thomas' description of his dad is apt and pithy--"He used to work on the Irish stage until he fell off of it"--unlike the rest of this interminable, finally unfunny display of family nonsense. Pataki's performance will either tickle you or make you want to run screaming for the exits. He doesn't simply steal scenes, he robs the play of its potentially gentle sense of humor, forgetting that an actor overacting the role of an actor who also overacts is like pouring hot fudge over killer chocolate cake.

BE THERE

"The Liberation of Jerome Gleason" and "The Viewing," American Renegade Theatre, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends April 8. $10-$15. (818) 763-1834. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.