THEY FOUND THEIR FREEDOM: ON BLUEBERRY HILL
By: Samuel L. Leiter
January 11, 2019: In No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic existentialist drama, one of the three dead characters destined to spend eternity with each other in hell, famously discovers—during a round-robin of mutual recrimination and unfulfilled desire—that “hell is—other people!” In Irish playwright Sebastian Barry’s engrossing On Blueberry Hill, two characters, who have every reason to hate each other, are confined to a cell at Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison. Forced to co-exist in this living hell to the end of their days, they eventually discover that even one’s rankest enemies may hold the key to love and redemption.
Barry’s often dark, intermissionless, hour and 45-minute drama comes to 59E59 Theaters courtesy of Ireland’s Fishamble: The New Play Company, as part of Origin’s 1st Irish Festival. Its set, by Sabine Dargent (who also designed the convicts’ drab uniforms), shows a bunk bed surrounded by numerous sheets of blank paper, suspended on thread-like strings.
The lower bunk is occupied by the stocky, middle-aged, lightly bearded PJ (David Ganly). His accent and possession of a bible reflect his middle-class background and education as a Catholic seminarian. Lying in the upper bunk is an older man, Christy (Niall Buggy), his head shaved and his profanity-laced comments and accent representing his working-class background as a tinker’s son.
It’s best to refrain from giving too much of the plot away so I’ll note only that both are in prison for murder, that homosexuality is involved, and that you have to suspend your disbelief to accept the circumstance—a prison guard’s perverse whim—that throws Christy’s fuel onto PJ’s fire by placing them in the same cell.
Barry teases out his tale via the relatively unconventional means of avoiding any dialogue between the men. Instead, they speak directly to us in a series of monologues, reciting their stories, their backgrounds, and their crimes, offering whatever other exposition is needed for us to understand how they came to terms with their fatefully intertwined pasts. And if you’re wondering what all this has to do with Fats Domino’s rock n’ roll rendition of “On Blueberry Hill,” which provides the play’s title, you’ll have to see the play to find out.
Barry’s writing, verbally lush in the tradition of the best Irish writing, allows PJ and Christy’s memories to bath in the glow of nostalgia. Much of it, though, with its frequent references to specifically Irish markers of the 60s and 70s, will bear the heaviest weight for people closely familiar with the emerald isle during those years. And Barry’s dependence on monologues rather than dialogue does occasionally sag in the tension department, especially after we discern the connection tying the men together and realize where the play is heading.
Nevertheless, under Jim Culleton’s subtle direction, Buggy and Ganly give what are among the finest demonstrations of restrained, totally believable acting on the current New York stage. So much contemporary acting, no matter how “realistic,” is heightened for effect that we tend to applaud showily inventive performances over more restrained and—on the surface, at least—untheatrical ones. Buggy and Ganly—the latter, especially—manage to mask their theatrical devices beneath a natural, even confidential manner that makes us feel they’re talking straight to us, creating an immediacy greatly aided by the intimacy of 59E59’s Theater B.
We feel their pain, their confusion, their anger, their guilt, and their frustrations just as if we were friends visiting them in prison and listening to their outpourings. We become part of their world to such a degree, in fact, that, when the play culminates in a surprisingly theatrical celebration, we don’t mind the stylistic disruption because we’re so invested in seeing PJ and Christy find their thrill.
On Blueberry Hill ****1/2
59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Though February 3, 2019
Photography: Patrick Redmond