New York’s 1st Irish Festival is presenting a complex, challenging work that weaves drama and narrative into an intricate and emotionally affecting story about death, unrequited love, and a kind of afterlife.
Hit by a car and killed, 58-year-old Eric Argyle (Dave McEntegart) awakens into a bewildering procedural nightmare. He squirms in frustration as a series of scenes from his younger days plays out before his eyes while a mysterious group of also-dead people prepares to render a judgment or decision that concerns him, without telling him what question is being decided.
In a parallel story whose connection to Eric’s becomes clear eventually, a young musician named Jessica (Karen Sheridan) receives a sackful of mail meant for a former resident, thousands of envelopes each containing a single page of an enormous manuscript. The whole story of The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle comes together slowly and grudgingly as Jessica literally pieces together her unexpected puzzle.
At the end of the play, some questions about this existential mystery linger, but if the story is wild, the telling is captivating – playful, fast-moving, nervously wound. Watching it is a little like playing one of those complicated German board games – about building a civilization, say – without fully understanding the rules. Just as in those games, simply plunging in and playing is the best way to figure out how it works.
Fortunately, bringing Ross Dungan’s impressively lifelike dialogue into sharp relief is a superb ensemble cast, their performances honed by earlier productions of the work, with director Dan Herd nimbly zipping them through complexities both meta-theatrical (speech therapy, memoir vs. novel, will anyone like my work?) and plot-wise with an array of interesting and memorable characters.
Erica Murray morphs easily among three roles, including both an aging spinster (named Mrs. Quillmore in another possible reference to the writing craft) and a young child, the latter’s scenes presented via a powerful zeroing-in technique. Manus Halligan is one minute a mild shopkeeper mourning his young son, the next Eric’s intense childhood friend Craig. James Murphy plays Eric as a boy and young man with high-pitched innocence but substantial presence. Davey Kelleher is funny as Eric’s stuffy uncle who hides depths of feeling under an exaggerated upper-crust haughtiness that wouldn’t be out of place in a P.G. Wodehouse tale. Possibly most impressive of all, because of the role’s thanklessness, Katie Lyons plays the moderator of the afterlife bureaucracy with admirable sensitivity and focus.
The most powerful scene comes late in the game when Eric and his longtime friend Gillian (a deceptively low-key Siobhán Cullen) creep uncertainly towards a possible life together in the wake of years of disappointment and death. A complete drama of the human condition plays out in that one scene, leaving us with the knowledge that while stories have beginnings, middles, and ends, real life neither ties up its loose ends nor comes with easy moral lessons. A touch of over-sentimentality at the close serves only to remind us of the whole work’s outstanding integrity, emotional force, and flawless flow. It runs through September 29 at 59E59.