Bath is farmer’s war room

Peter Maloney and Rufus Collins in a scene from “The Quare Land.” PHOTO: CAROL ROSEGG

By Orla O’Sullivan

A man walks into a bath… Well, not quite, though the play just opened at the Irish Repertory Theatre is about a farmer taking his first bath in four years when a stranger walks in.

In years of theatre going, it was the first time I witnessed an audience cheer at the set-up alone, which is what they did on the opening night “The Quare Land” last Thursday.

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The play opens onto the exterior of a dilapidated farmhouse and the sound of chickens clucking, but then the set immediately turns to reveal the interior and, at its core, Hugh Pugh (Peter Maloney) staring out at the audience from his bathtub.

The cheer that went up preceded the knowledge that Hugh, rock music blaring on an old record player, has added to the pleasure of his overdue bubble bath with an ingenious, if repulsive beer-cooling system. Using an elaborate pulley system, he draws one bottle of beer after another from the chilly depths of a caked toilet on the far side of the filthy, barren room.

Does Pugh (pew) live up—or down—to his name or is he just the simple fella he seems when Rob (or “Robber” as Pugh later suggests) walks in? The pulley provides some insight into his character.

Rob (Rufus Collins) doesn’t know the provenance of his beer, when he is forced by Hugh to join him in a drink, which he does to further his efforts to persuade Hugh to sell him one of his fields.

“And why wouldn’t he?” Rob seemingly assumes. Hugh clearly could use the money.

Being naked doesn’t undermine Hugh’s bargaining power as he negotiates with Rob, standing over him in a suit.

They say a farmer at a market will talk about anything other than the animal he wants to buy or sell. So it is with Hugh, while developer Rob bulldozes ahead, making it clear why it is important to him to get the field in question.

Eventually, the play takes a Pinteresque turn, where the seeming victim switches to victor. Hence the play’s title of the quare—or queer—land.

As the power struggle builds, Hugh talks incessantly, telling drinking stories and complaining, “all that dog wants to talk about is rabbits.” He has a way of quashing Hugh’s attempts to interrupt, assuming the high ground with tales of tragedy or remarks that he “can’t stand rude youngsters.”

Although many in the audience seemed to find this entertaining, I soon found it as wearing on me as it was on Rob (who displayed his irritability far sooner and stronger than seemed politic). The tension that might have built before the tables turned was largely lost.

However, Maloney, particularly, was excellent and the play had several funny aspects, including Hugh’s brother, 91, represented only by the vanity-horn on his car and the backstory surrounding a neighbor who had robbed Hugh in his youth.

Hugh learns from Rob that the thief made major, financial reparations. Still, Hugh won’t forgive, until he learns that the neighbor, long dead from a horrible accident, also made provision for Hugh to have free drink at a local pub. True to Irishmen of a certain vintage, Hugh melts into his one moment of tenderness: “Ah, God love him.”

The production won four of the seven jury awards in this year’s Origin’s 1st Irish festival: best play for McManus; best director for The Rep’s Artistic Director Ciarán O’Reilly; best design for Charlie Corcoran; and a special jury award for Peter Maloney.

“The Quare Land,” by John McManus, is on through Nov. 15, at the Irish Repertory Theatre’s temporary home at DR2 Theatre, 103 E. 15th St., N.Y., N.Y. Tickets from the Rep at (212) 727-2737 or www.irishrep.org.