The sixth annual 1st Irish Theatre Festival brings the bar to the theater and the theater to the bar in Ronan Noone's two-person time-jumping play, The Compass Rose. Now playing at the small, rustic, Ryan's Daughter pub on the Upper East Side, this intimate production makes for an enjoyable evening of New York theater, though the atmosphere outshines the play itself.
If we have learned anything from Hollywood filmmaking, it's that a boy plus a girl plus a cross-country road trip equals "unlikely" romance — and Noone is not one to deny simple arithmetic. Tiffany Jones, played by the endearing and bright-eyed Olivia Horton, and Donal McIntyre, played by a charming David Mitchell (made even more charming by his irresistible Irish brogue), open the play 10 years after sharing a fateful car trip across the United States. Following what we learn has been a decade of silence between the two, Tiffany finds Donal at The Compass Rose — the old restaurant/bar where they used to work together. They subsequently rehash their old romantic trials while sharing the details of their newfound lives of drudgery and monotonous domesticity (essentially a theatricalized version of Jason Robert Brown's "Stars and the Moon"). The details of the road trip that led to this present estrangement are gradually revealed as we flash back and forth across this 10-year threshold.
While the premise is awfully reminiscent of the 2010 Irish-themed film Leap Year (there must be something about the Irish and long road trips), Noone does offer a couple of original twists. Some clever dialogue and a few touching moments also keep the audience well-engaged, but none of them ever truly hit the romantic nerve we wish it would, due in part to its streamlined script (the best RomComs need at least an hour and a half to pack their signature tear-jerking punch). Only an hour in length, The Compass Rose comes across more like an extended one-act than a fully developed play.
Director David Sullivan, however, makes impressive use of the unorthodox production space. The two actors wander through and around tables, building an entire world from bar stools and tablecloths while the audience members are close enough to trip them with their chairs. Even with so few props to work with, the temporal jumps are always clear, though unfortunately they never fully re-create the cinematic effect of smoothly dissolving from one moment in time to the other — a particularly difficult task for a play viewed from such close proximity.
While the piece itself may not be the most innovative or revelatory, existing physically among the action of a play is a memorable experience worth seeking out. And Horton and Mitchell have proved themselves up to the task of doing justice to this fickle medium. They both offer convincing performances with admirable vulnerability, putting the audience at such ease as to make us forget that we're behaving like gawking intruders — quite an accomplishment considering the atmosphere of the room, where flaws are under a microscope and insincerity is glaringly apparent. Such severe conditions would typically induce equally severe responses (either positive or negative), so for us to walk away with the casual feeling of hmm, that was pleasant, is an achievement that should not go unappreciated.