Storytelling is a gift. And Conor McPherson—the Irish playwright, screenwriter and long-time ‘bad boy’ of the British stage–is one of the most gifted tale-tellers ever known.
His Port Authority, now in a stunning revival mounted by Quotidian Theatre Company in Bethesda, is a masterpiece of storytelling, told in the form of interlocking monologues that are as entertaining as they are moving.
The play is performed by three consummate actors and directed by Jack Sbarbori, who co-founded the theater 22 years ago with his wife and partner in stagecraft, Stephanie Mumford.
Port Authority, which was previously staged at Quotidian in 2009, is an actor’s dream. It is the story of three generations of men—a father, a son and a grandfather—who live in their own private worlds but take turns confiding to the audience some of their memories of might-have-been. Together, they share an abundant wit and a love of laughter leavened with booze.
Chris Stinson is Kevin. First into the spotlight and the storyteller’s chair, he is boyish, ebullient and brimming with hope. And why not? Life is about to begin. He’s leaving his parents and moving into a house with three roommates and little furniture or food.
Two of the roommates are perpetually drunk, or ‘shit-faced,’ as he puts it. But the third is Clare, a girl who is smart and pretty and miles above everyone else around. Clare is his buddy.
“Everybody in Dublin was in love with her,” Kevin says, wondering at his good luck. But, he adds, she tends to go out with ‘headbangers,’ musicians who play in heavy metal bands and who are “rich and spoiled and better looking than any of us.”
Dermot, the father, is played by Matthew Vaky. His humor is as dark as Kevin’s is light.
An aging hippie who dreams of success, Dermot is a self-made failure who props himself up with bouts of mockery and endless rounds of gin and tonic. His ‘might-have-been’ is a glamorous job at an investment firm, where he is wined and dined before being dumped.
Unveiled as a fraud, Dermot’s downfall is virtually ordained. Yet he blames it on the boss’s wife, whose nipples—whenever she leans over to pour him a drink—are revealed by her low-cut dress. Were it not for the nipples, he laments, he might have made it into that other world.
The third character in this Gaelic triptych is Joe, the grandfather, who lives in an old age home that’s presided over by a motherly nun named Pat.
Played with avuncular charm by Joseph Palka, the old man’s tale is the sweetest of them all.
Twirling a rosary in one hand and holding a photograph in the other, Joe tells the story of a long and affectionate marriage, punctuated only once, and then by an encounter that he fled. It was a look from a next-door neighbor that did him in, leading to a might-have-been that never was.
On the other hand, his glee over an escape to the pub—where he and his elderly roommates are in the process of getting drunk—is as joyous as can be. Recounting the scene, Joe looks a bit like Santa Claus without the suit, sharing a nip and a laugh before the stern Sister Pat arrives.
Port Authority is a wickedly funny play with an undercurrent of loss. Like the negative of a print, the moments of ‘might-have-been’ define the space, outweighing the positive or real.
Joe, the grandfather, puts it best. Had he gotten to know the neighbor, he tells us, the mystery would have gone. The woman, whose glance had set him on fire, would have become as ordinary as his wife.
All three of the actors are outstanding in their roles. Not surprisingly, all are veterans of both the Conor McPherson repertoire and the Quotidian style. All three are interpreters of the ordinary, capable of finding meaning and drama in the everyday moments that make a life.
In fact, watching the ease with which these characters are transformed—each speaking directly to the audience, without being able to bounce words back and forth and feed each other lines—is an eye-opener. It’s little wonder that this play is rarely performed. I suspect that there are few American actors who can pull off the dialect and deliver a monologue without declaiming.
In the script, McPherson describes the set as the stage of a theater. Sbarbori, who is both the director and the designer, has decided to create a scene within a scene, turning the backdrop of the artificial theater into a set depicting a fishing shack that’s shut for the night. The three actors take turns occupying the storyteller’s seat up front.
The costumes, also designed by Sbarbori, are generational banners. Kevin, the kid, is in T-shirt and jeans, a familiar jumble of optimism and fear. Dermot, the father, sports the dark shirt of disappointment, while Joe, attuned to another time, is dressed in genteel formality.
The action, according to the playwright, takes place outside Dublin, in a coastal town that is home to a world-famous monument to James Joyce.
That’s probably no coincidence, since—according to Gerald C. Wood, one of the world’s leading experts on the playwright—”McPherson’s writing is very much in the tradition of Joyce.”
(Click here to read Barbara Mackay’s interview with Wood, who is the author of Conor McPherson: Imagining Mischief, an in-depth profile of the playwright and his beliefs. )
“Port Authority reflects McPherson’s desire, like Joyce, to move beyond his Catholic upbringing, yet retain some of its imagery,” Wood added in an e-mail correspondence after I’d seen the show. “The connection is not literal but mysterious, especially in its delineation of desire unfulfilled.”
Asked what he thought the title might mean, Wood agreed with Stephanie Mumford, who suggested that it might be shorthand for divine authority.
However, he said, “It could also refer to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York, where a lot of people pass but have no connection.”
Wood, who is a retired English professor, is also an authority on Horton Foote. In addition to his books on playwrights, he is the author of a prize-winning biography of a well-known baseball legend named Smoky Joe. He will moderate a discussion of Port Authority on Saturday, November 3rd, following the 2 pm performance.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.