This ‘Curse’ is a delight

“The Irish Curse” By Martin Casella • at the SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam St., NYC • Open-Ended Run

Playwright Martin Casella may have come up with a new angle on the expression “support group.”

In his comedy. “The Irish Curse,” which has just began a run at the SoHo Playhouse, he imagines a group of male friends and acquaintances who get together on a regular basis to confront a worry they all share: the rumor that Irish men tend to have sexual equipment of, shall we say, modest dimensions.

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As the premise might suggest, “The Irish Curse” is a one-joke venture, but it’s full of funny lines and silly situations, all of them superbly and fairly delicately delivered by director Matt Lenz’ solid five-actor cast. In addition, Casella’s text is graced by a generous amount of insight into the actual subtleties and realities of the male sexual situation, not to mention a good deal of genuine compassion for the individuals involved.

“The Irish Curse” takes place in the modest, somewhat disorderly meeting room in the parish hall of a Catholic church in Brooklyn, the sort of space used for a variety of projects involving parishioners, including bake sales and, in the case of Casella’s 90-minute, intermissionless play, a previously booked rummage sale which brings the work’s support group’s session to a close.

The best-known of Lenz’s actors is probably Dan Butler, familiar to television watchers for his work on the small screen, particularly his ongoing role as Bulldog in the long-running sitcom “Frasier.” In the play at hand, Butler is Joseph Flaherty, a well-bred, divorced businessman from Savannah, Georgia, transplanted to a New York he doesn’t yet entirely understand, a place where politeness and good manners can easily be mistaken for weakness.

Director Lenz has drawn a spectacularly funny and surprising performance from soap opera star Austin Peck as Stephen Fitzgerald, an undercover cop who happens to be an active and unclosetted homosexual. As Dubliner Kevin Reilly, making his first visit to the group, Roderick Hill is totally convincing as a shy youth, new to America and working as a roofer for the Queens company his mother has recently inherited. As a very probably undocumented worker, Reilly is nervous about revealing his situation to Fitzgerald, who might easily blow the whistle on the issue of his legality.

Scott Jaeck, as Father Kevin Shaunessy, utterly at ease in Lauren Helpern’s comfortably cluttered parish house setting, brings just the right note to his work as the aging priest who is the support group’s slightly withdrawn host and reluctant participant.

“The Irish Curse” faced its first New York audience as part of the New York International Fringe Festival in 2005, at which time it won the Overall Excellence Award for Playwriting.

In that Fringe production, the role of the braggardly, woman-hungry Rick Baldwin was played by Brian Leahy, who has returned to recreate the character for Lenz’ smoothly easygoing and engaging production.

“The Irish Curse” is precisely the sort of play which might have, all too easily, gone wildly off the rails and become embarrassingly distasteful. That it hasn’t done so is a tribute both to Casella’s skill as a writer, and to the subtlety and discretion with which director Lenz has handled his excellent actors.