Review – Portia Coughlan – Aria Entertainment at Old Red Lion Theater

by

Although Portia Coughlin is a revival of a show that previously played at the Royal Court, I knew nothing about it – 1996 is a million years ago in theater time. So I’ll give some background and plot to help you out in deciding whether or not to see this play, but I’ll try to make it fun.

Step RIGHT UP to the amazing FREAK SHOW LIFE of PORTIA COUGHLIN (Susan Stanley), supposedly irresistibly attractive but clearly just a MESSED UP ALCOHOLIC. Meet her CRAZY CIRCLE OF FRIENDS that make absolutely no dramatic sense including THE WARM HEARTED ELDERLY HOOKER (Veronica Quilligan, who easily steals the show) and her AMAZINGLY TACKY YET WELL LOVED BIRTHDAY PRESENT (a ceramic horse “from the garden center,” which Portia prefers to the diamond bracelet her husband gave her earlier). WITNESS A CAVALCADE OF GOTHIC SECRETS as we discover PRETTY MUCH EVERY CHARACTER HAS SLEPT WITH ANOTHER including the brothers and sisters DOUBLE DOUBLE INCEST TROUBLE!!! SEE Portia try to strangle her mom WISH Portia would strangle her granny BE AMAZED as Portia zig zags from one emotion to the next. WITNESS credulity-defying over-salting of the plot! GASP at the clothes everyone wears to the funeral! And finally … LAUGH as Portia’s blind best friend invites a barkeep to screw her in her eyesocket!

The surprising thing about this play, in retrospect, was how very strong I found each of the performances, from the alternately dead-eyed/totally mad Portia to her warm, loving best friend (Karen Cogan), from the sleazy barman (Conan Sweeny) to Portia’s bitter mother (Susan Cummins). Each single one of these characters (and there were about ten) was vibrant and believable, absolutely conning me into believing they’d only ever existed as the person I saw on stage and not as an actor. But the story itself, the way we were thrust into so much misery so fast, just killed my ability to buy into what was happening on stage. Really, there’s enough bad news to sustain a year long TV series, but far, far too much for a seventy five minute play. The characters go careening from one peak emotion to the next, switching from highs to lows faster than a barrel racer at the rodeo, and I just couldn’t go along for the ride. And then, while I couldn’t fault the accents, the depiction of Irish townsfolk as being “mystical,” “in tune with the supernatural,” “loose,” “violent toward women,” and, let’s be honest, a pack of drunks, seemed to me like the grossest kind of stereotypes that stained the play so much that the perfectly executed accents could not polish it clean again. There must have been about five plays jammed into this one work, one play about dealing with loss, another play about a mystical relationship with a river, and a really great little play about an elderly sex worker and her charming autumnal romance. The whole thing needs a serious rewrite by Marina Carr, and this script should be relegated to the “things wot inspired me to do other things” bin and not restaged again – it’s just too hopelessly flawed. Except for that one line about the eye socket – that will live forever.

(This review is for the opening night performance that took place on Friday, May 1st, 2015. It continues through May 23rd.)

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