Review by Marilyn Lester
The propensity of the Irish to tribal thinking may be sharply lessening over the generations, but Cavan-born playwright John McManus makes the most of the Cavan stereotype (backward and stingy) in The Quare Land. This uproarious two-hander is a clever satire addressing greed, the relationship of the Irish to the land, and the changed values of the “new Ireland” in the 21st century.
Hugh Pugh is a 90-year-old Cavan codger, a confirmed bachelor, who’s taking a bath for the first time in four years, prompted by the imminent visit of his older brother. He’s making the most of it, with bubbles, rubber ducks, and a pulley system that draws bottles of Guinness from the toilet bowl to his side. Because Pugh is in the bath for the duration, hats are roundly and soundly off to actor Peter Maloney for 90 straight minutes in the tub while delivering an exquisitely-timed comic performance.
The evocative set, by Charlie Corcoran, is the second floor bath of a decrepit rural farm house into which comes an unexpected visitor, the smarmy and stressed 40-something developer, Rob McNulty – played with wondrously developing layers of frustration by Rufus Collins. Pugh doesn’t read his mail (a fact on which the play’s outcome hinges) and hasn’t answered any of McNulty’s many letters, hence the developer’s sudden appearance at the Pugh farmstead. It transpires that McNulty is keen to buy a field in Leitrim that Pugh owns, to extend a golf course resort for city folk seeking a country respite.
What ensues is an escalating battle of varying proportions between the two men. At the outset, McNulty can barely get a word in edgewise as Pugh relentlessly regales him with stories and reminiscences. Collins’ role is largely reactive at this point in the play, with Maloney’s monologues delivered with humorous bombast. Eventually, McNulty is able to prevail as the play progresses. The two actors work hand-in-glove, achieving a satisfying balance, aided by the deft directing of Ciarán O’Reilly, who keeps the pace swift and the action flowing.
The cantankerous Pugh doesn’t believe he owns the field that McNulty wants to buy. Through a plot device involving an unread letter pulled from a massive pile of them by McNulty, the horse-trader in Pugh emerges. The play takes a dark turn here, as Pugh, who has already accused McNulty of being a greedy bugger, outdoes the gob-smacked developer in the avarice department. “I’m a fair man,” McNulty nearly whines as the demands of Pugh become increasingly grandiose. “It takes a clever man to play the fool,” says Pugh – his aim being to acquire maximum wealth from his windfall, having McNulty over a barrel. McManus’s point is the fine line between prosperity and greed.
Throughout, the dialogue between the two characters is rhythmic. Both Maloney and Collins are expert at pushing and pulling the words, and are apparently having a great deal of fun interpreting McManus’ text. In one exchange, McNulty, a son of the Celtic Tiger, reveals he has no problem with the English, a concept that horrifies Pugh who still worships freedom fighter Michael Collins and hasn’t much forgotten the 1916 East Uprising.
Perceptive audience members (especially those who know their Chekov) will anticipate the ending of The Quare Land. Its darkness has been compared to the plays of fellow Irishman Martin McDonagh, yet unlike McDonagh, McManus keeps the resolution decidedly on the comic side rather than the horrific. A knowledge of Irish ways may make The Quare Land a fuller experience, but it’s by no means a requirement for understanding the universal truths that McManus touches on. It’s a hilarious ninety minutes with a great payoff – time well spent.
Costume design for The Quare Land is by David Toser; lighting design by Michael Gottlieb; and sound design by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab.
The Quare Land, Tuesdays at 7pm; Wednesdays at 3pm and 8pm; Thursdays at 7pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm; and Sundays at 3pm, through November 15
Photo: Carol Rosegg
The Irish Repertory Theatre at the DR2 Theatre, 103 East 15th Street, 212-727-2737, www.irishrep.org