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Oft-Told Tales

An Irish play revels in its storytelling, while an awkward comedy falls flat

Marsha Mason, Lauren O’Leary, and Brenda Meaney in Elaine Murphy’s “Little Gem,” directed by Marc Atkinson Borrull, at the Irish Rep through September 8.
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“Little Gem,” Elaine Murphy’s tale of three generations of women currently running at the Irish Rep, is a narrative gem, rich in character and lyricism. It is prototypically Irish in its tales of love, loss, and frustration, but there is a freshness in the characters and the storytelling that makes the piece consistently engaging and moving.

The story and the relationships unfold slowly as each woman tells her tale first as a monologue. As the evening progresses, we understand who they are to one another and slowly become intimate with the lives of the mother Kay, her daughter Lorraine, and her granddaughter Amber. Murphy’s writing is both simple and evocative; it is the language of the storytelling that draws one into the tales and the multiple layers of the characters’ lives. The women speak in different cadences completely appropriate to their ages — 60-plus, 40s, and 20s — which makes the piece feel completely contemporary, yet the substance provides a poetic sense of timelessness that underscores the inherent commonality of their experiences.

The plot is very simple. While Kay is struggling with caring for her husband, big Gem, who has had a stroke, she is also bemoaning the lack of intimacy that has inspired her to buy an appliance for self-satisfaction. Lorraine is dealing with a junkie ex-husband, a new man, and trying to move on with her life, and Amber, after her hard-partying teenage years, learns she’s pregnant by a man who is not sticking around. What holds these women together is ultimately family, and Amber decides to name the child after her grandfather — making him the Little Gem of the title.

Marc Atkinson Borrull’s direction is fluid and precise, allowing the characters to reveal themselves slowly, as we learn the depth of familial connection among the women. The joy they find in one another underscores the warmth, hope, and love they share, even as life has its way with them.

The cast is excellent. Lauren O’Leary conveys Amber’s restlessness, anger, and grit as she comes to terms with becoming a mother. Brenda Meaney as Lorraine beautifully conveys the conflicts and confusions of midlife, finding her way as an older woman, but not one willing yet to give up on passion and love. Marsha Mason is in top form as Kay, conveying an appealing balance of loyalty and love but yearning for something of her own. It’s heartbreaking to see her try to adjust without her husband of many decades, but she is hilarious in negotiating (in story only) the use of a vibrator and whether that constitutes infidelity.

It’s especially fascinating to see this new piece as a follow-up to the Seán O’Casey trilogy presented by the Irish Rep earlier this year. In that, as in this, strong women are trying to negotiate a world populated by sometimes venal, sometimes selfish men while keeping life on an even keel. What makes “Little Gem” distinctly contemporary is that at the center of each character’s story is the question: “Who am I now?” O’Casey’s characters didn’t have that luxury. What this production shares with the trilogy, though, is beautiful characters, wonderful storytelling, and a special talent for creating simple, human, theatrical magic.

“The Exes” is an undistinguished domestic comedy that has pretensions to the drawing room but never gets beyond the mudroom. Rather than being light and playful, it’s mired in labored stereotypes, some of them borderline offensive. The result is not the sparkling wit and endearingly fallible characters of Noël Coward but the lionizing of cisgender white men whose worldly success results from aggression, selfishness, and cruelty. We can turn on the news if we want to see that; as theater it’s an epic fail.

The overly complex plot concerns tycoon Richard, his friend Dick, the woman they were both married to, Mavis, the British house manager, Prim, Richard’s daughter, Victoria, who is about to marry a man who doesn’t fit the ur-male model, Mavis’ new boyfriend, the fey Dane Marcel, and Richard and Mavis’ son, Garret. They all end up in Richard’s apartment on Christmas Eve where sparks fly, accusations mount, and comedy goes to die. Playwright Lenore Skomal aims at social criticism, but beyond naming two unpleasant people Richard and Dick there’s not much there. A Shavian examination of capitalism, male privilege, class, and the subjugation of women this isn’t. The play is too unfocused and exposition-heavy to allow for anything that sophisticated. It doesn’t help that Garret, a generic, Generation Z bro, is the only remotely sympathetic character.

Director Magda S. Nyiri simply moves bodies around the stage. There’s an incongruous slow-motion retelling of a disaster that marred Victoria’s wedding, but it’s a lame attempt to dramatize something that happens offstage.

The cast does what they can, but they are hobbled by the script. None of the characters speaks like a believable person. So, it’s hard to blame Tim Hayes as Richard for the largely affectless line readings and rantings or John Coleman Taylor for the stereotyped bitter British servant act. They’re just doing what’s written. Similarly, Alison Preece, as over-the-top, repellant daddy’s girl Victoria, or Kyle Porter, as the cynically portrayed, light-in-the-loafers Marcel, have been forced into one-dimensional, generic performances. They all deserve better material.

If all this were not bad enough, having written herself into a corner with no way to resolve the plots Skomal tops it all off with a demeaning gay joke to ring down the curtain. This is not so much “Exes” as one big X.

LITTLE GEM | Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St. | Through Sep. 8: Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. | $50-$70 at ovationtix.com or 212-727-2737 | One hr., 40 mins., with no intermission

THE EXES | Theatre Row Theatres, 410 W. 42nd St. | Through Oct. 5: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $59.25 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 15 mins., with intermission

Updated 2:15 pm, August 25, 2019
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