By Samuel L. Leiter . . . 

Musical theater is usually thought of as lighthearted and escapist, but the genre can also point to darker, even horrific themes, including madness and murder. Shows about characters racked by psychological problems cross the spectrum from relatively benign, like 1941’s Lady in the Dark, to more harrowing, like Next to Normal, American Psycho, and Asher Muldoon’s new Off-Broadway effort, The Butcher Boy, now at the Irish Rep. 

Muldoon, a precocious actor, writer, and comedian who’s a senior at Princeton, has adapted Irish novelist Patrick McCabe’s 1992 eponymous book into an intimate coming-of-age musical for which he wrote the book, lyrics, and music. (McCabe himself wrote a two-character adaptation called Frank Pig Says Hello in 1992, and Neil Jordan directed a film version in 1997.)

Nicholas Barasch and Kerry Conte

The Butcher Boy is about an adolescent Irish psycho named Francie Brady (Nicholas Barasch), who narrates his own story while acting in it. A superficial veneer of realism can’t prevent Francie’s intense cerebrations from exploding into surrealistic expression, giving director Ciarán O’Reilly and choreographer Barry McNabb numerous opportunities for creative staging, with valuable help from Kat C. Zhou’s clever lighting. Some may find a phantasmagoric scene of electroshock therapy particularly shocking.

The work has several redeeming features, mostly performative, but lacks the musical genius and wit needed to fully capture the essence of Francie’s tortured psyche. As played by the talented Barasch, a fresh-faced actor with an eye-catching crop of flaming red hair, Francie at first seems a spirited and positive lad, thrilled by his friendship with Joe Purcell (Dan Macke at the performance I saw, covering nicely for Christian Strange), hoping they can “Live Like This Forever.” Over the course of an overlong two-and-a-half hours such childish optimism gradually dissipates.

Nicholas Barasch and Christian Strange

Francie and Joe, when they’re not fishing, hang out at a makeshift chicken house whose crudely slatted walls are splattered with comic book images, reminiscent of those that popped up on TV’s old “Batman” show. The time is, in fact, the early 60s, beginning around when the Khrushchev-Kennedy nuclear confrontation was happening and the world seemed on the verge of disappearing in a mushroom cloud. Charlie Corcoran’s effective set, which includes a turntable, is backed by a huge, old-fashioned TV screen on which grainy, jumpy clips from once popular TV shows, like “The Lone Ranger,” “Gunsmoke,” and “The Twilight Zone,” mingle with other contemporary images assembled by projection designer Dan Scully. Orla Long’s costumes—mostly realistic but every now and then stylishly heightened—go a long way toward establishing the period feeling.

Odd images swirl around in Francie’s fragile consciousness, triggered by his depressing family circumstances of quarreling parents. His Da, Benny (Scott Stangland), is a failed, alcoholic trumpet player, while gently loving Ma (Andrea Lynn Green) is mentally ill and suicidal, being sent to an institution Francie calls the “garage,” like a place to get your sanity bolted back in. Francie would love to stop time in its tracks so whatever happiness he feels can be preserved, or to turn time back to when Ma and Da were as happily united as they seem in their old photographs. 

Nicholas Barasch

Maintaining a weirdly sunny disposition, as if unwilling to accept reality, even when being strapped by Da, Francie’s tenuous grip on decency begins to slip with a mischievous prank he and Joe pull off by stealing the comics collection of a nerdy boy named Phillip Nugent (Daniel Marconi). Something snaps when Phillip’s snobbish, angry mother, Mrs. Nugent (Michelle Ragusa), says Francie is “no better than a pig.”

Pigs now become obsessive creatures of Francie’s fevered imagination, a chorus of four pig-masked townsfolk (David Baida, Carey Rebecca Brown, Polly McKie, and Teddy Trice) acting like his evil conscience and porking about in numerous scenes purporting to reveal the boy’s psychological confusion. He harasses Phillip and his mother, demanding they pay a “pig-toll tax” to pass on the street, and even poops like a pig on the Nugent floor.

As things slide, Francie views his drunken father’s demeaning treatment of his own brother, Uncle Alo (Joe Cassidy); runs away to Dublin, imagining himself a Western movie hero while using a ridiculously pompous British pseudonym; lies and steals; discovers puppy love; lashes out violently; is placed in a special school; returns home, the prodigal son; learns how to slaughter pigs; interacts with Da in a scene slantingly reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Psycho; and gets the One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest treatment in a mental institution (now there’s a musical waiting to be made!). Naturally, his friendships with Joe and Phillip are kaput, inviting alienation to make its onslaught. 

Teddy Trice, David Baida, Nicholas Barasch, Carey Rebecca Brown and Polly McKie

The ensemble, including a golden-voiced soprano named Kerry Conte, who plays three different Marys—a former girlfriend of Alo, a pretty teenager, and the Virgin Mary—is solid, and Mr. Barasch has a vivid presence, but Francie’s twisted journey and the show’s theatricalist methods—those swine hog too much stage time—are too thin to maintain continued interest. And, sad to say, Francie seems more a concept than a person.

Muldoon’s music is agreeable enough, but most of it is generic pop or Irish folksongy,—workmanlike but minimally memorable and only spottily affecting. An unseen band, “The Slaughterhouse Five,” provides the musical backup. Most of Muldoon’s songs lack distinctive character, just as the characters themselves are boyishly imagined simplifications. Finally, while a sense of gallows humor sometimes lurks, I never did get the hang of it.

The Butcher Boy. Through September 11 at Irish Repertory Theatre (132 West 22nd Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). 

Photos: Carol Rosegg