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Mr. Dooley's America

"Conversations" between two Irishmen add up to a delightful evening of theater. logo
Des Keogh and Vincent Dowling in Mr. Dooley's America
(© Carol Rosegg)
At the beginning of Mr. Dooley's America at the Irish Repertory Theatre, Des Keogh as turn-of-the-19th-century newspaper columnist Peter Finley Dunne explains that what's about to unfold isn't a play but, rather, "some conversations." Whether "some conversations" -- even if consistently delightful --- meet the criteria for a satisfying evening of theater is a matter of opinion. But audience members wanting to hear a couple of Chicago Irishmen gab on a variety of issues for about 70 minutes (not counting a 20-minute intermission) without approaching anything close to dramatic conflict could do worse than attend this chipper interlude, adapted by the late Hollywood screenwriter Philip Dunne and Martin Blaine. The talky piece is affable enough to entertain us while simultaneously provoking constructive thought.

Dunne created the fictional character of barkeep Dooley (Vincent Dowling), who appeared in a series of Chicago Post columns syndicated across the country. In each entry, Dooley mixed blarney with common sense as he ran off at the mouth to regular late-night customer Hennessy (also played by Keogh). On the evidence of this show, Mr. Dooley was as quotable as Mark Twain and was interested in the same topics: i.e., the foibles of men and government. Asked random questions on a wide spectrum of topics by Mr. Hennessy, one of the world's most obliging straight men, Dooley dispenses remarks of the sort that elicit nods and chuckles rather than belly laughs.

When the writing is solid, the formula works like a charm. On the subject of hypocrisy, Dooley says, "No man really believes he has anything but the good of humanity in mind. Turn on the light in the darkest heart, ye'd find it has a good reason for the worst thing it done." Talking about the immigrant influx of the past, he says, "In them days, America was the refuge of the oppressed of the world. They could come over here and start oppressin' each other." About divorce, which Hennessy has spelled "D-I-V-O-R-S-E," Dooley asks rhetorically, "Why shouldn't any of us be able to get a divorce simply by goin' before a justice of the peace and making an affidavy that the beloved face has become too bleak for our taste?" And here's what he has to say about old age and death: "The sooner you get old, the longer you'll be old. If you get old at all, get old in moderation."

Dooley also tackles politics. When Hennessy wonders, "Will us Democrats elect a president again," Dooley replies with a number of well-turned and mischievous sentences on why he has suddenly become a Republican. This segment must have something to do with why the production's helmer, Irish Rep artistic director Charlotte Moore, chose to stage the play right now; many people's concern about the prospects of today's Democratic Party certainly make Dooley's viewpoints seem relevant.

Moore knew what she was doing when she cast Dowling and Keogh. Their twinkling eyes only begin to describe the life they bring to their roles. With nothing required of them other than to palaver while downing the frequent drop of liquor or spiked cup of tea, they're such pros that they make fine Irish linen out of the already sturdy material. Dowling, his hair white as clouds, adds a bit of the leprechaun to his manner. Keogh is distinguished as columnist Dunne and attentive yet relaxed as Hennessy. Reacting of the sort that he's counted on to do isn't easy, although he makes it look so. Indeed, he's so adept that what he's doing -- or not doing -- commands as much attention as Dowling's efforts.

Towards the end of the show, Dooley thanks Hennessy for his contribution, and Hennessy responds that he has barely spoken. This exchange underscores one of the significant accomplishments of Mr. Dooley's America: A little chatter has added up to a gratifying contribution.

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