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Theater Review (NYC): Luck by Megan Riordan (American Premiere)

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At first impression, Megan Riordan's Luck seems to be a "now for something completely different" compared to the other productions in this year's 1st Irish Theatre Festival. The action takes place in the desert of Las Vegas and its casinos instead of the forty shades of green – the new island rather than the old. However, if you look past the gambits that surround Riordan's performance art – the roulette wheel, the dice, the cards – deep in the heart of the evening lies a traditional story of emigration. Ms. Riordan needs to leave the land of her father.

Throughout Luck, the performer entertains with stories of growing up in Las Vegas as the daughter of an Irish-American professional gambler. It was an unconventional childhood that had an unconventional result. She lives in Dublin now. Evidently, what happens in Vegas makes you go back across the ocean.

The show begins, and Ms. Riordan has been working the room already in full character, handing out cheese and crackers on a tray reminiscent of those of the cigarette girls of the 1940s. Frank Sinatra belts out "Luck Be A Lady," but Ms. Riordan isn't going to keep things polite. She is candid about the some of the worst aspects of a town that can bring out the worst in people. "People" include her father, Max Rubin, who wrote the bestseller Comp City: A Guide to Getting Anything You Want Out of a Casino. What Ms. Riordan didn't get out of a casino was a functional family.

Ms. Riordan explained – to a full house at the performance I attended – that the casino always wins. Hence, the gamblers always lose. The exception is blackjack. A good blackjack strategy will help the gambler break even. Or even win. Ms. Riordan's father will help. He can show us how to beat the casinos at their own game, but the question is at what cost? One obvious result is being banned from the casino. A less obvious result, and the essential dramatic tension of the monologue, is that the endless attempt to beat the house ultimately damages her relationship with her father.

Ms. Riordan was often her father's accomplice in gambling. She and others, including her future husband, helped dupe the casino. Granted, many daughters have difficult relationships with their fathers, but few daughters need to put on a wig in order to maintain an affinity with their parent.

Throughout the show, a screen prompt directs the performer to "tell a story," and she does, of this adventure or that, of this colorful "uncle" or that near-miss. Eventually, the screen requires her to "tell your story," and Ms. Riordan reveals a story of departure, away from a gambling, alcoholic father and a seemingly silent mother, to a new life, highlighted by a wedding in Kinsale, hopefully proving that she is both lucky at cards and lucky in love.

Luck arrives here from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, part cabaret, part game show. An intriguing feature of the show is its constant evolution. Any one night will be different, just as a night at the casino might be. Ms. Riordan's reveries are determined by the roll of a dice or the spin of the roulette wheel placed in the audience's hands. According to Ms. Riordan, there is a 1 in 2,764,800 chance you will see the show you see.

One of the few constants night to night seems to be her confessional into the security camera, with footage displayed on the screen for all to see. These moments, spoken into the camera and off stage, away from the audience, are the weakest of the show. With ubiquitous reality television programming, confessionals into a camera are more unpleasant than poignant.

Another drawback are the bells and whistles; they threaten to overshadow the compelling story. A show as loud and garish as the Vegas strip stifles the narrative. At one point, Ms. Riordan struggles to be heard over Sinatra's Nathan Detroit. That's a problem with sound, and it is a problem with the structure of the production.

After the show, I met Ms. Riordan and congratulated her on the show's success in Edinburgh. I had to ask her about a particular moment in the show. At one point, she walked into the audience and gently took a man's hand, looking long and hard into his eyes. That man was the New York Times reviewer sitting at our table. I asked her if she knew who he was prior to the occasion. She laughed and said she knew he was some sort of reviewer. It was press night after all. But she said she didn't know he was from the Times. What are the chances of that?

Luck is energetically and charmingly directed by Dodd Loomis, whose upcoming project is assisting Julie Taymor on the infamous Spiderman the Musical project. He may need some luck with that. Luck is playing at the 59 East 59th Street Theater until Oct. 11.

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About Kate Shea Kennon