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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 28, 2016

Patrick O'Kane, Robert Zawadzki, and Declan Conlon
Photo by James Higgins

Beer, ball (football that is, or soccer if you live on this side of the pond), and brawling: Are there more quintessential examples of Irish mindset—or at least the Irish theatrical mindset—than these? Probably not, which is why Quietly packs the resounding punch it does. The Irish Repertory Theatre and The Public Theater have joined forces to bring the Abbey Theatre production of Owen McCafferty's play to the Irish Rep stage—and not a moment too soon. This is a bracing gut-punch of an evening that hits all the buttons you need but never quite goes where you expect it to.

In part for this reason, and in part because the play is so short (barely 75 minutes), to say a little is to give away a lot. Though Quietly doesn't trade on huge shocks or stunning twists the way, say, the Irish Rep's last tenant, Shining City, does, it approaches its more realistic concerns with no less potent force. And knowing too much about where it's going and how it gets there could risk diminishing its impact, which, in this production that has been directed by Jimmy Fay, is considerable.

So let's instead focus on those three initial qualities to see how they integrate themselves here. Beer is easy: The action is set in 2009 in a Belfast pub (the comfy but claustrophobic design of Alyson Cummins, and lit, with a keen emphasis on shadow, by Sinéad McKenna), where the ale flows freely and frequently from beneath the hands of barman Robert (Robert Zawadzki). He's a Polish immigrant who came to Northern Ireland in search of opportunity and, against his better judgment, ended up doing exactly the same he did in his native land in order to support his demanding wife (who's a native of here, not of there). As for football, it's the day of a World Cup qualifier match between (coincidentally?) Northern Ireland and Poland and thus part of the reason the bar is deserted.

That leads into the brawling, which is at the core of the action. Joining Robert on this dead day is Jimmy (Patrick O'Kane), a 52-year-old man who's planning to meet someone at the bar soon, and warns Robert that things could get heated. Yet when the anticipated combatant arrives, it's in the person of Ian (Declan Conlon), a man about Ian's age and considerably slighter of build—there's no way he could provide any real threat.

Or could he? Looks may or may not be deceiving in this case, as before long it becomes evident that Jimmy has good reason indeed to fear him: They have a relationship stretching back some decades that links them to the floor on which they're standing now, even though they've never directly met before. And when Jimmy starts telling his side of their conflict, it sounds pretty bulletproof. But maybe, despite whatever act Ian committed, there's more to the story that provides the necessary explanation?

Though all of the details are eventually revealed, McCafferty leaves much of the interpretation and analysis up to you. The only thing that's unavoidably certain is that there are two men, who are both hurting and in search of absolution they can get nowhere else, but that the state of the world and human nature make difficult to obtain under the best of circumstances. And, for the record, Robert is not immune: The mob of kids outside his door, threatening him because of who is and where he comes from, has thrust him into a situation from which the only escape may be violence, and which hints at the idea that he knows all too well what the other men are enduring.

Much of the point is that we're all enduring something, that we're all facing tests of what we believe, who we are, and who we were, and learning the answers (or perhaps just one set of them) does not mean the quest for understanding concludes. Fay's direction highlights this in its subdued tension, which is always roiling away just beneath the surface—which is in itself already superheated. O'Kane and Conlon make superb foils for each other, and capture each man's unique take on the events that have made him who he is—O'Kane is violently energetic, Conlon looks burned out from the eyes downward, and it's impossible to say who is scarier. Robert's a less-defined role featuring mostly reaction and subtextual chit-chatting, and though Zawadzki hits all the proper marks, he doesn't make anything special of the part.

This production might be somewhat better if he did—and thus drew additional connections between the tightly intertwined questions of what it means to be a bystander to historical events and what it means to participate in them. But the powerful perspectives Jimmy and Ian bring to the conversation are, ultimately, all you need, and McCafferty, Fay, O'Kane, and Conlon have played those to the hilt, and you'll remain affected by their work long after you leave the theater. Given the similar issues that are cropping up in our headlines every day, it's no great surprise that Quietly rings out as loud and clear as it does.

Through September 11
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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