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Juno and the Paycock

Jim Norton in O'Casey's
Juno and the Paycock
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
When Sean O'Casey wrote Juno and the Paycock, he threw in everything but the kitchen sink. And he would have thrown that in, too, if the Boyles--in whose shabby flat he placed his play--had a kitchen sink. They don't; at least, not in John Crowley's accomplished but flawed production for the Roundabout Theatre Company.

The Captain Jack Boyles do have buckets--buckets of trouble, with both a lower-case and upper-case "T." O'Casey wrote his incendiary play in 1924, only eight years after the Easter Rising and only two years after the 1922 Civil War exploded. The Troubles were fracturing Ireland, and O'Casey--ripped his tragedy from headlines so fresh the newsprint hadn't dried, contriving to bring much of the conflicts and their effects into the Boyle's main living area.

First, there's son Johnny, whose arm and hip were shattered in a street encounter and who therefore is a hobbling emblem of the crippled nation. Though Johnny is riven by nightmares and hallucinations, his affliction initially seems the worst thing the Boyles must deal with. The bulk of that dealing is borne by the eponymous Juno, since her husband, Jack, the family paycock (read peacock), forever excuses himself from the call of everything but two local pubs, giving chronic pains in his legs as the unlikely reason for his inability to seek work even when it's offered.

Jack exacerbates the family's plight when it looks as if there's a large inheritance coming from a deceased cousin; he runs up debts with neighbors and local merchants, while strutting around a now somewhat gentrified parlor. He also keeps constant company with Joxer Daly, the kind of boozy hanger-on who'd steal a man's last tanner (and who, in fact, does so late in the play). When the expected infusion of as much as 3,000 pounds evaporates--along with Charles Bentham, the lawyer who brought the news and also impregnated daughter Mary Boyle--Jack does nothing but rant about Mary's shameful condition and get drunk. He's nowhere to be found when Johnny is carted away and killed by rebels he has apparently sold out.

Because O'Casey, proud to put himself forth as a communist and a nationalist, was interested in drama as political activism, he wasn't concerned with crafting a well-made play. As the three acts of Juno and the Paycock (presented here in two) unfold, he says as much as he can about the damaged heart and frayed soul of a people he clearly loves but can't forgive for their transgressions. So he heaps comedy on drama, amusing development on grim turn of events. Fortunately, his instincts are right enough, even when a sense of structure and unified tone eludes him.

Many of the play's incidents are presciently contemporary--at least through this week in the year 2000, when the civil war that prompted O'Casey's startled and angry response is being replicated at flashpoints on the globe with no end in sight. Johnny's being caught up in the set-tos of intramural civilian armies underlines the complexities of revolutionary outbreaks. His being forced from his home at gun-point registers as if it were a horrifying image from the nightly news. So does a scene earlier in the play when a family singing a cappella at home is interrupted by the arrival from upstairs of Mrs. Tancred, a grieving mother on the way to her son's funeral. Her stark outcry as she contemplates the torn body of her boy is today's front-page photo-journalism; it has the effect of a knife being plunged into a needlework pillow with the legend "Home Sweet Home" worked on it.

O'Casey is so profligate with moods that, Johnny's presence notwithstanding, the opening scenes of this play can and probably should be played as comedy. Juno's chastising, Jack's denials about drinking and his friendship with homily-spouting Joxer are all funny; actually, they're slow to cease being funny, as they persist to the point where Jack and Joxer become almost unbearable company. It's possible to watch the first act of Juno and the Paycock and think it's a segment of The Honeymooners, with Jack as Ralph, Juno as Alice and Joxer as Ed. When the Boyles's new furniture is repossessed, it's an eerie forerunner of a Honeymooners episode in which the same dispiriting heave-ho occurs.

O'Casey takes care to remark on as many types populating Ireland as might gather at the Boyle digs. He sets up Jack and Joxer as worthless men and runs them through a series of humiliating sell-outs of each other: "He'll never blow the froth off a pint o' mine agen," Jack trumpets only minutes before he calls up to Joxer to join him for a few. O'Casey allows Mary to throw over her importuning boyfriend Jerry Devine and fall in love with Bentham, a man ostensibly above her station, before pulling that new rug out from under her. He brings on Maisie Madigan, a boisterous woman ready to sing a sentimental song; he has Bentham explain what, as a theosophist, he believes. He sends out a handful of minor characters, like somber clowns, to show off the frightening and/or ineffective faces of different embattled factions.

Jason Butler Harner,
Gretchen Cleevely, Dearbhla Molloy
in Juno and the Paycock
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
And then, of course, there's Juno, who will be recognized these days as a battered wife. Not physically, since Jack never hits her; the thrashing she takes is emotional. And why she puts up with it can only be chalked up to the Catholicism that is both adhered to and excoriated in this play. "Blessed Mother, where were you when my son was riddled with bullets?" Juno cries out at play's end in a repeat of Mrs. Tancred's anguished query. (Johnny crosses himself whenever he passes a picture of the Madonna on the wall and fears for the moment when the candle in front of it is allowed to go out--which, of course, it eventually does.) Up to her collapse, though, Juno handles every situation with the fortitude of the goddess after whom she has been nicknamed by Jack. She sees through almost every one of her errant husband's fibs. When Jack swears Joxer hasn't dropped by, she knows he has. She cradles her son throughout, and when she knows he's died, she cradles his pillow. She instills her forlorn daughter with whatever hope she can muster.

Juno's gallantry provides the uplift in O'Casey's play. But it's also a problem that blares from the stage now, even if it didn't when the play debuted and audiences were too astonished by its immediacy to be concerned with dramaturgical faults. Throughout the histrionic thunder and lightning, Juno is staunch, while the men--starting with Jack and including the vanished Bentham and Jerry Devine, who can't deal with Mary's pregnancy--are broken and useless. O'Casey might just as well have called his work Mother Courage and the Seven Weaklings. (Incidentally, O'Casey preferred calling Juno and the Paycock a tragedy, but it might more accurately be classified a comedy-melodrama.)

In bringing O'Casey's diatribe to the stage, Crowley, who began this journey at London's Donmar Warehouse last year, has done what could be considered a worthy job were it not for one glaring mistake. The playwright stipulates that the action takes place in the Boyles' tenement dwelling. Crowley and his set designer, Rae Smith (she also designed the costumes), have let the characters loose in large, if decrepit, rooms that look as if they comprise an apartment in a former manor house. There's even an 18- or 20-foot ceiling with intricate molding and a dangling chain that looks as if, in better days, it held a chandelier. As a consequence, the pressure that had been put on this in-extremis family has been lifted; necessary tension has been eased.

It may be that Crowley intended to cut the characters some slack, since he also sends Juno out just before the final curtain with money she's hidden under Johnny's mattress-- coins that aren't indicated in O'Casey's script. Joxer's retrieving that last coin Jack has dropped isn't mentioned in the script either, but his pocketing of it is one of the many nice ideas Crowley has. It's also smart of him and Smith to preface the play with a scrim on which has been placed a newspaper blow-up and then superimpose newsreel footage upon it. When they action proper begins, it is quite literally a story behind the story.

The actors, led by Dearbhla Molloy as Juno and Jim Norton as Captain Jack, give a fair accounting of themselves, although from time to time it seems as if what they're stressing is not emotion but Irishness. There's an over-the-top quality to the playing that especially affects Norton and Thomas Jay Ryan as Joxer. Are these genuine Irishmen and -women suffering torments, or are they Stage Irish? Only Norbert Leo Butz as Jerry Devine, Liam Craig as Charles Bentham and, in particular, Molloy, who allows Juno's quiet strength to shine through, manage to skirt the problem. (Stephen Gabis is the dialect coach; perhaps he did his job too well.)

Throughout the play, Joxer characterizes everything that catches his fancy as "darlin'." But "darlin' " is something that O'Casey's rambunctious work never was. "Darin'" is more like it. It was darin' when he wrote it. It was darin' in the 1950s, when a New York production was stopped at the height of that decade's red scare. And it's darin' still--something to see even when, like the war-weary Johnny, it's gait is impaired.

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