Review of Cyprus Avenue, starring Stephen Rea, at the Public Theater

  • Our critic's rating:
    June 27, 2018
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    In the Press Release for Cyprus Avenue now at the Public Theater, it says that this is a "subversively funny and savage new play" and it is a "wickedly funny play." I am figuring that this came from across the pond along with the cast of this brilliant production. The Brits have a different definition of "funny" than I. So lemme say this about that - Cyprus Avenue is way more than funny, but if they told you how much distance it puts between itself and funny, you might hesitate to buy a ticket. This is not a play for the faint of heart.

    I can, however, tell you in two words why you WANT to get your butt in a seat for this play: Stephen Rea.

    Yes, of course, it all starts with the word. This play is no exception. David Ireland is an extraordinary writer. And the word needs to make it off the page like a foal getting up on its legs. For that you need an actor who is a chemist, a chameleon and a magician. Rea is all of that and more. Then you need a director who intuits how best to guide such a performer to walk to the edge, leap off and fly. Vicky Featherstone appears to be such a person.

    Cyprus Avenue is more than a play. It is a holodeck. And someone else has chosen the program settings.

    As the play begins, Bridget (Ronke Adékoluejo) greets her new therapy client Eric (Stephen Rea). She tells him, Inside it’s a mess. Every single one of us is a diabolic mess. We walk around being normal but all of us inside are unfathomable and messy….  It’s your job to untangle your insides. And it’s my job to help you along the way.

    Thus, we are officially on notice that old Eric has been up to something. And we are given a teeny-weeny foreshadowing of his potential for catastrophe when, in a heartbeat, he asks his new therapist THE most un-PC question ever. Period.

    The journey has begun with not so much as a “by-your-leave.” Train has left the station and we are on it.

    Eric agrees that the world is messy, but his insides are not. He has no intention of untangling anything because he is the one who sees. The way some people might disrobe, he has shed one layer after another of reality until only his circuitry is left, and that is not firing on all pistons. Eric has stepped into a room separate from the rest of us.

    To begin with, Eric lives in Ulster, Northern Ireland. He is a Unionist. The rest of the world be damned. If you are not Unionist you are Fenian. The rest of the world is made up of Fenians – everyone from Barack Obama to the Pope. And the Irish – all of the Irish. Eric considers himself British. The Fenians by whom he is surrounded are a threat. One way you can tell a Fenian is by the smiling eyes (hence the song "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling"). Those eyes smile 24/7 and they will be smiling while they stab you in the back. Eric knows this to be true.

    Fenians come from Sinn Fein, the political group associated with the IRA, the militant organization who demanded that Britain give up its claim to Northern Ireland. There was a lot of killing, assassinations, bombing - a lot of Hell that lasted for decades and was referred to as "The Troubles".  (Decades ago Ireland demanded independence from Great Britain, and it was granted with the exception of the area known as Northern Ireland. Think of the Confederacy rejoining the United States with the exception of Mississippi. Perhaps not the best analogy but work with me. So the folks in Mississippi would consider themselves Confederates even though there was no Confederacy… oh, right, kind of like what is actually happening.)

    Eric fought against the IRA, and he knows the battle is not over in spite of the "peace." He is beyond paranoia or depression. He is a soldier defending against the unseen assault on the way life should be. As viewed from the picture window of Eric’s private life the world out here is war zone. When the war comes to the doorstep of his own family he is honor bound to stand up and take action. His wife Bernie (Andrea Irvine) and daughter Julie (Amy Molloy) (who are given way to little to do in this story) are of no matter in the face of this perceived danger. Neither is Slim (Chris Corrigan) who briefly brings his own flare for madness to the table and dials everything up a notch.

    Watching Rea is taking a master class in the art of acting. He rides this text like a man kayaking down a river. He knows the calm pools as well as the rapids. He knows when to plunge over the edge and when to step out of the water to transport on foot. So completely does he open himself to Eric that we are immersed in the journey along with him. We are in lock step and Rea is plotting the course.

    As the play concludes Rea and Ireland return us to our seats. But we are not the same as when we left.  We have been shattered and reassembled.  We have changed on a cellular level. This is the magic that is theatre. This is the transformation that theatre promises staring you in the face.

    When it is over, you don’t want to leave the room.

    (Photo by Ros Kavanagh​)

    What the popular press says...

    "Cyprus Avenue, which opened on Monday night under the confrontational direction of Vicky Featherstone, is an unsparing study of a midlife crisis with a body count. While it is set in another country — Northern Ireland, to be precise, though you might want to avoid using that designation in Eric’s presence — American theatergoers will recognize the beleaguered soul at its center."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "A baffling waste of resources and time, David Ireland’s failed black comedy stretches a single bad analogy into a numbing 100 minutes."
    Helen Shaw for Time Out New York

    "Rea’s performance can best be described as dogged and unrelenting. He’s just as intense with his first mouthful of bile as his last, and Eric has a lot of bile to chew and spew out in the course of this 110-minute play."
    Robert Hofler for The Wrap

    "A co-production of Dublin's Abbey Theatre and London's Royal Court, Cyprus Avenue is the sort of subversive piece designed to be both horrifying and funny. The play fulfills those aspirations to a degree, but too often at the expense of being alternately alienating and, strangely enough, boring. Long before the evening concludes, the playwright's straining for effect becomes all too tediously evident."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - Time OutThe Wrap - Hollywood Reporter