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Duo act with subtlety rare for NYC stage

March 14, 2012

By Staff Reporter

Amy Conroy and Clare Barrett in “I Heart Alice Heart I."

“I Heart Alice Heart I” * By Amy Conroy * Starring Clare Barrett and Amy Conroy * Irish Arts Center * Through March 17

The Irish Arts Center’s executive director, Aidan Connolly, saw Amy Conroy’s amazingly skilled, endlessly charming two-character play “I Heart Alice Heart I” at last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival and was determined to bring it to New York.

After the Theatre Festival, where Conroy won the Fishamble Award for Best New Writing and her lithe co-star, Clare Barrett, won the Best Female Performance Award, the show moved to the Abbey, Ireland’s National Theatre, where it enjoyed a successful three-week run.

Now the play has arrived in New York, in splendid shape, perhaps ever richer an experience than Connolly thought it was when he saw it in Dublin. The only problem with it is in the title, which places the symbol for the word “hearts” where the word “loves” might be a better fit, not to mention easier to type.

The two young actresses who created the experience, the subtle writer-director Conroy and the deftly charming Clare Barrett, who shares the stage with her for 70 charming, moving minutes, are both new to New York, although the latter played a brief stint in Washington a while back as part of a mixed Irish and American company.

It’s almost impossible to say just how subtle and how effective these young actresses are, playing decades beyond their actual ages as Conroy’s story takes them gracefully into their 60s in the course of an enduring love affair that changes both their lives beyond easy recognition.

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Mainly speaking directly to the Irish Arts Center audience, Conroy and Barrett underplay with a subtlety and to a degree that’s very seldom seen on a New York stage.

The result is, of course, that the audience leans forward en masse to devour just about every word that either of them says, even at whisper level, which is sometimes the case.

For reasons known only to her, playwright Conroy has named both of her characters Alice. She is Alice Kinsella, while Barrett is Alice Slattery. The perverse double naming is perhaps slightly confusing to the audience but everything is clarified in good time.

“I Heart Alice Heart I” is so satisfying on just about every level that that modest production deserves a longer New York run than the brief stand the Irish Arts Center promises.

The women are, of course, lesbians, whom we follow through decades of their durable and deeply felt relationship. Alice Slattery, born on the 27th of May, 1948, is the younger; Alice Kinsella was born on the 20th of October, 1946.

Alice Slattery had been born Alice Connolly, but had been married to Liam Slattery. He had died at age 31 of a massive heart attack, leaving her a widow.

It’s somewhat uncertain whether she had had any specifically lesbian experience prior to her encountering Alice Kinsella.

Playwright Conroy has a decided gift for specific detail, which she manages to blend into a smoothly flowing current of remembered details of ordinary life, with references to food and music and movies, all gracefully mixed into an easygoing conversational pattern, with no effort whatever visible.

Conroy described her show as ” fictional but presented as a documentary piece.” Elsewhere, in her introduction, she seems to be attempting to deny that she’s written a play, saying that the “play” between the actors “portraying the Alices is the unwritten script.” She adds slyly that “both of the Alices have been working with the director for nearly a year.”

No matter what image Amy Conroy chooses to suggest, she has in fact written a play, and a very good one, one of the best on any New York stage at the moment, ennobled by two wonderful actresses we haven’t seen before, but who appear to have bright futures.

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