By Orla O’Sullivan
“Who’s Your Daddy?” * By and starring Johnny O’Callaghan * Directed by Tom Ormeny at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St. NYC * Playing Wednesday through Sundays through May 12 (with a possibility of an extension) * Tickets through 212-727-2737 or www.irishrep.org.
The story of a gay man trying to adopt a child might seem to be of narrow interest. However, anyone seeing this first play by Dubliner Johnny O'Callaghan can see why his solo show won accolades at its debut in Los Angeles in 2011 and at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe festival.
Anyone who has an Irish mammy, a quirky family, an interest in language, children, global development, or simply a badly judged love affair in their past can relate to the hilarious, moving and tension-filled tale O'Callaghan tells in “Who’s Your Daddy?” The show stands out from most others this reviewer has seen in years.
Within moments of O'Callaghan’s first utterance that he’s “haunted” by his parents “and they’re not even dead!” you’re laughing and confident of great things to come. Impressions of his chain-smoking, politically incorrect mother whose favorite color is “n**** brown” quickly give way to the main story—a trip to Uganda that O’Callaghan fell into at a low point in his life.
The unemployed actor’s chance encounter with an acquaintance bound for Africa leads to him leaving California before he knows it. “Maybe I should have Googled Uganda!” O’Callaghan told himself the night he arrived after passing militia mimed throat-slitting of the “Mzungu!” or “white man”.
Unexpectedly, Uganda’s life-and-death realities shook O’Callaghan from the suicidal fantasies he had in L.A.
The neglected yet exuberant children in the orphanage spoke to him. Scabby, ashen, and malnourished, they shared a mud floor with snakes and rats. One toddler climbed into O’Callaghan’s lap, fascinated by the red hairs on his arms. O’Callaghan heard a voice: “This is your son.” The boy, Benson, has a birthmark — like the map of Ireland, O’Callaghan thought — in the white of one eye.
O’Callaghan had long dreamt that he was pregnant, waking as he searched for his child’s birthmark.
Still, he tried to shake the crazy notion of adopting Benson. Then, one night, he said, “I dream of Benson graduating Harvard medical school and wake knowing I’m going to adopt him”.
O’Callaghan left for L.A., as planned, having hired a Ugandan lawyer to process the adoption.
But that’s only the start of the story. One obstacle after another stood in his way: from his single, gay (actually, bi-sexual) status; to Benson’s HIV status; to African bureaucrats on the take. Will he, won’t he? It’s gripping drama.
There’s lot of light relief, too. The stern judge, who finally decides his case, became suddenly starstruck when he learnt O’Callaghan was an actor. “What might I have seen you in?” he booms. O’Callaghan (pathetically): “Stargate Atlantis.”
There’s the family intervention by phone. Different members try to dissuade him, from his sister declaring him a “pedophile” to his father attesting that, “being a parent is bloody awful.”
In a dejected moment, O’Callaghan internalizes his family’s negative voices, reproaching himself with a rhetorical question: “Who do you think you are, Angelina Jolie?” Later, there’s a nice in-joke with the audience when O’Callaghan assures the earnest Californian social worker that, yes, his family will have a baby shower for him.
Tom Ormeny adds nice directorial touches, such as having O’Callaghan hang, apelike, from an overhead pipe at one point when he is in the orphanage near the jungle.
A beautiful set by Charlie Corcoran vividly evokes Africa even before the show starts. The silhouette of an Acacia tree, a species so associated with Africa, dominates a horizon painted on the back wall. It lies beyond a honeycomb wall that conveys a dusty dryness. Switches in lighting (Michael O’Connor) shift the emphasis from background to foreground, as O’Callaghan relocates from Africa to the U.S.
So much to praise, so little space…