The Boat Factory
This barebones two-hander about the Harland & Wolff shipyard proves that all you need is two Irishmen, an empty stage, and a story to make for a night of great theater.
Irish playwright and actor Dan Gordon's new play, The Boat Factory, now at 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival, is the epitome of great storytelling. Gordon and his costar Michael Condron, take the floor of the intimate Theater B for two hours, armed with nothing but their Irish brogues, to present a piece of unadulterated theater in its humblest and purest form.
The son of an Irish shipbuilder, Gordon pays homage to his family heritage with a finely crafted script that lifts a magnifying glass to the heyday of Belfast's Harland & Wolff shipyard. Though best known as the company that built the Titanic, there are only a few sporadic mentions of this inglorious notoriety. The story primarily follows Davy Gordon (played by Gordon) and his friendship with polio survivor Geordie Kilpatrick (played by Condron). The two young men, like war buddies, bond over the experience of working together in the trenches of the boat factory in the early 1950s. Their friendship in turn offers a window into the broader shipbuilding culture, not to mention a more than hearty helping of Irish charm.
The play is structured much like a sturdy boat. A large portion of the first act serves as the frame for the story, with Davy and Geordie telling the audience in a third person narrative about the SS Canberra, the last ship Harland & Wolff ever launched, as well as the company's1861 founding, complete with poster board photos of several bearded men as visual aids (no need to take notes — there won't be a test). The two men also reenact scenes from Davy's childhood, with Condron doing most of the nimble weaving in and out of what feels like dozens of characters, laying the foundation of Davy's pre-boat factory life. It takes some time to find your sea legs within the show's free-form structure, but once you get your bearings, you can't help but go wherever Gordon and Condron take you. You simply watch in awe as they create a completely immersive experience with just a couple of props and their own two bodies.
Director Philip Crawford clearly runs a tight ship, with every character transition, stage crossing, and tempo change precisely articulated. He makes clever use of vertical space by sending his actors up and down the two towers of scaffolding that make up the set, intelligently maximizing the potential of the small stage. This specificity keeps the play driving forward at a steady pace, making the few moments he slams on the breaks all the more powerful. A beautiful underscore provided by Chris Warner also adds subtle emphasis to the more poignant moments.
Act II is particularly mesmerizing as the story finally skews from the skeletal background information and digs into Davy and Geordie's Forrest-and-Bubba-like relationship. We see their friendship grow deeper as they endure the daily hardships (and profound tragedies) that come with a life in the boat factory, and as they simultaneously develop a common love for their work and the sense of community it nurtures. Gordon's dialogue is Irish to the bone, with a good many "arse"s and "shite"s tossed around. This authentic, homegrown voice is the heart and soul of the piece, though there are moments you sincerely doubt they are speaking English.
Yet, even when the most concentrated eyebrow furrowing can't decode Gordon and Condron's brogued blabberings, their tales are somehow just as enthralling as when you can actually understand what they're saying. Luckily there is plenty of comprehensible dialogue through which Gordon's beautiful story can shine, giving an American audience a rich look into a slice of history that rarely crosses the pond.