Niall Toibín
Niall Toibín
"Every one of these stories is true," Niall Toibín says. The slight curl of his thin upper lip signals, however, that he's indulging in Irish irony. He means, of course, that not one of the stories he's telling during The Revenge Tour--the 80-minute show he's presenting as part of the Irish Arts Center's Comedy Festival--is remotely true.

On the contrary, they are blarney, to use a word that he doesn't use. They're short, narrative jokes based on common perceptions of the Irish personality. "Stereotypes" would be another way of putting it; but what saves the instantly engaging Toibín from being charged with perpetuating stereotypes is that, in a leisurely fashion, he presents a spectrum so broad he seems to be delivering a fair account of his homeland's idiosyncratic population.

Wearing an open-necked, lavender shirt, white blazer, and dark slacks, Toibín begins his comic disquisition with quotes from Tacitus and Sir Walter Scott on the subject of the Emerald Isle, but he drops the college lecturer's approach within minutes to cover the expected subjects: drinking, politics, horses, sex, footballers, children. "We have to talk about sex," he says, "which is all I can do." Consulting a list on the table by which he stands, he talks about the old, the young, and the middle-aged in Donegal, Cork, Kerry, etc. He gives at least one traveler's tip: If you ask for gasoline rather than petrol, you'll be spotted as an American and charged accordingly.

Just about all of Toibín's stories are amusing--the kind of jokes that raise a smile of recognition rather than a belly laugh. On the two occasions when he didn't get the response he expected at the performance I attended, he promised he'd pass out footnotes later. (I have to admit, there was one joke I didn't get at all). The funniest tall tale he tells--and the longest--involves a man, his possibly unfaithful wife, and a washer-dryer unit. There was also a pretty good one about the French Revolution and how an Irishman outsmarted the guillotine.

Toibín's real subject the real subject of all raconteurs: human nature. For that reason, his stories might just as well have been told about Lithuanians, Brazilians or Canadians. Despite his journeying across the map of Ireland in his accounts, it quickly becomes apparent that his placing one story here and the next at the other side of the small country ("300 miles long, 150 miles thick") is really his way of showing off an impressive mastery of dialects and accents. An expert actor whose first Manhattan appearance was as Brendan Behan in Borstal Boy but who is perhaps more recognizable now for his role in Ballykissangel, Toibín slips into upwards of 30 or 40 characters in The Revenge Tour. Near as I could figure, he didn't repeat a one and is convincing in every guise. He's also as adorable as were the Irish character actors whom he recalls: Barry Fitzgerald and his brother Arthur Shields, Cyril Cusack.

It's not Toibín's notion to do anything other than entertain. Sure, he delivers one gag set in Belfast--but it's about domestic trouble, not The Troubles. There are no references to the Black and Tans or the Great Potato Famine, although his stories are historical to the extent that they are not up-to-the-minute. In the last few years, as has been widely reported on business pages, the Irish economy has taken off; there's a new generation of go-getters who resemble their counterpart Masters and Mistresses of the Universe in every major country. But if Toibín's noticed this phenomenon, he's not interested in discussing it on these shores. (Incidentally, this is a return engagement.)

Niall Toibín is dedicated to kidding the older, enduring, national characteristics of his countrymen and -women. Doing so, he's not so much documenting the Irish and how they got that way as having a rum time observing the Irish and how they remain that way.