"Are you a Joyce fan?" asks Doyle, one of the 17 characters played by two actors in Little Thing, Big Thing, a fast-paced, darkly comic thriller now running at 59E59 Theaters. The playwright, Donal O'Kelly, is clearly a fan and has his characters frequently utter "internal" stream-of-consciousness remarks à la Joyce's Ulysses to describe their surroundings and thoughts ("Door slam. Around the side, moon low, gardens let go and a rusty old van abandoned there tsch-tsch...").
This device sometimes makes for confusing storytelling onstage, especially when it's combined with a twisty tale of intrigue involving a roll of camera film (despite the fact that the plot takes place in the present) and an evil corporation that's hot in pursuit of an ex-con (played by O'Kelly) and a nun (Sorcha Fox). But without its two strong performances, Little Thing, Big Thing would have little thrill at all.
Sister Martha McCann has worked in Nigeria for years. One day she's given a roll of film and told to deliver it to a man named Henry Barr in Ireland and "to trust no one." Undertaking this mission, she comes across, by chance, a criminal named Larry O'Donnell, who has been hired to steal a statue of the Virgin Mary. This unlikely pair sets off on an often funny journey across Ireland back to Dublin as they try to avoid the clutches of the sinister Nigerian-based megacorporation Scarab Oil. The film that Sister Martha holds has some murderously incriminating evidence that could upend the giant company's owners. Martha and Larry must try to get the film in the hands of the authorities before Scarab Oil catches up with them.
O'Kelly packs a lot of convoluted plot (as well as Joycean phraseology) into 80 minutes. By the end, it feels as though loose ends have been tied up quickly not for the story's sake but for the sake of its two actors who seem like they could collapse from exhaustion, with O'Kelly and Fox turning out energetic, nonstop performances. As is the case with Ulysses, it's the set pieces of Little Thing that often stand out more than the work as a whole. O'Kelly and Fox shine in individual scenes, such as the one in which O'Donnell and a police officer, brilliantly played by Fox, engage in a conversation about boozing and Alcoholics Anonymous. Or when O'Donnell and Sister Martha make their way through a Dublin full of partiers dressed as leprechauns. Those scenes and others are, on their own, delightful to watch.
The production utilizes a functional cagelike set, designed by John Comiskey, who also handles the lighting, that creates a gloomy, claustrophobic mise-en-scène from which the two main characters seem unable to escape. Carl Kennedy's sound design, with its well-timed effects of owls hooting and car doors slamming, brings the actors' pantomimes to life.
Ultimately, though, Little Thing, Big Thing's plot feels too big and ambitious for a play so small. Its surprisingly dark climax also leaves us wishing that O'Kelly had chosen to keep the ending in Joyce's essentially comic realm.
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