By Joseph Hurley
THIS LIME TREE BOWER, by Conor McPherson. Directed by Harris Yulin. Featuring T.R. Knight, Thomas Lyons, and Drew McVety. At Primary Stages, 354 45th St., NYC. Through June 6.
Had it been produced before "The Weir" opened on Broadway rather than a few weeks thereafter, Harris Yulin’s slightly rough-edged production of Conor McPherson’s "This Lime Tree Bower" might have raised some questions about this gifted young Dubliner’s ability to move beyond the one-actor monologues that brought him his first acclaim and write plays in which characters interact and play off one another.
"The Weir," however, although it is based, to an extent, in the monologue form, addresses the issue of McPherson’s ability to grow and develop, answering it in the affirmative, emphatically and clearly.
"This Lime Tree Bower," a title borrowed from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem "This Lime Tree Bower, My Prison," was written, apparently, after the two single-character pieces, "Rum & Vodka" and "St. Nicholas," which New York has already seen, but before "The Weir."
In this three-characters play, at Primary Stages, where "St. Nicholas" scored a distinct hit last season, two young brothers, 17 and 22, share the stage with a somewhat shambling Dublin literature professor, somewhere in his early 30s. The link between Joe, his older sibling, Frank, and the academic, Ray, is the boys’ older, unseen sister, Carmel, with whom the teacher is having a romance, but not a relationship of sufficient wattage to keep him from chasing one or another of his students when the opportunity presents itself.
In actor Yulin’s production, the boys enter first, behind a backlit screen of a roughhewn fabric resembling burlap, and position a pair of folding chairs in such a manner that they can face the audience. Actually, they are concentrating on the theater’s center aisle, down which Ray strides after a moment or so.
From the outset, the boys acknowledge each other, as they do the teacher once he arrives. When the story-telling starts, in the form of three rounds, with Joe leading off, followed by Ray and then Frank, with the youngest of the trio being granted one final speech, bringing McPherson’s 70-minute exercise to a close.
All three participants are clearly aware of the presence of the audience at all times, and, after Ray’s final monologue, there is actually a verbal exchange between the academic and the older of the brothers.
"I didn’t know that," says Frank, in response to a detail of Ray’s speech. "I’ve been saving it," Ray answers.
"This Lime Tree Bower" tells a rather movie-like coming-of-age tale, incorporating an account of a youthful venture into haphazard criminality folded into the plotline. It is unsurprising, then, to learn that the playwright is in Dublin directing a film version of the play under the title "Salt Water," working from his own screenplay adaptation. Brian Cox, who scored in "St. Nicholas," plays Ray in the screen version.
McPherson’s previous venture into the movies took place when he wrote the script for director Paddy Breathnach’s "I Went Down," a 1998 comedy-melodrama that will be seen on May 31 as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s series "Coming Times: New Irish Cinema," starting this Friday and continuing through June 10.
The Primary Stages production, which will run through June 5, uses an American cast, with T.R. Knight as Joe, Thomas Lyons as Frank, and Drew McVety, recently seen in Terence McNally’s controversial "Corpus Christi," as Ray, the amorous academic. All three actors do at least passable work in terms of reproducing Irish speech patterns, and give much more than merely acceptable performances in terms of McPherson’s dense text.
Stated simply, "This Lime Tree Bower" describes a caper in which the two sons of the operator of a Dublin fish-and-chips shop, also known as a "chipper," conspire to eliminate their father’s indebtedness to one of their customers, a particularly noxious individual known in the neighborhood as Simple Simon, a man who happens to be a locally powerful and greatly feared bookmaker, or "turf accountant."
The debt Joe’s and Frank’s father owes the bookie, however, wasn’t the result of reckless gambling on their father’s part, but, rather, a sum of money borrowed in order to finance the funeral of the boys’ mother.
Judging from this play and "The Weir," playwright McPherson has a penchant for obscure terminology. As defined in Webster’s, the word "bower" refers to, among other things, "a shelter, as in a garden, made with tree boughs or vines twined together."
As has been obvious from the start, at least since "St. Nicholas" debuted in the same space, and since Dublin-born actor John O’Callaghan performed "Rum & Vodka" as part of this past year’s New York Fringe Festival, Conor McPherson has an extraordinary ear for dialogue and a gift for characterization.
As a director, Yulin hasn’t managed to bring much stage magic to his production of "This Lime Tree Bower," but he has, at the very least, allowed the play to speak for itself, telling its compelling story clearly and without unnecessary adornment.
If nothing else, it whets the appetite for anything this young Dublin playwright, still on the short side of 30, might choose to turn his hand to. Even in an uninspired staging, "This Lime Tree Bower" is a welcome addition to the off-Broadway season.