Short staccato bursts of language, spoken in a thick Irish accent, become poetry in the New York premiere of Mark O’Rowe’s Howie the Rookie. Consisting of two successive, first-person, stream-of-consciousness monologues, the play follows the (mis)adventures of two working class lads from Dublin. Everything from taking a piss to describing a bloody fight is here imbued with a rhythmic lyricism.
Comparisons to the work of fellow Irish playwrights Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh are inevitable. O’Rowe shares with McPherson a love of the monologue, but his darkly comic humor is closer to that of McDonagh. This production, directed by Mike Bradwell, originally premiered at the Bush Theatre in London to great acclaim and was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The play’s two actors are both excellent, even if it is sometimes difficult to understand their words through the thickness of their accents. Aidan Kelly as “the Howie Lee” (as he’s called) starts off the evening, detailing an adventure involving a scabies-infested mattress and the hunt for “the Rookie Lee” (no relation), who may or may not have been responsible. With piercing blue eyes and a commanding stage presence, Kelly describes the goings-on in an endearing and funny manner that almost makes you forget the character’s thuggish brutality.
Karl Shiels is no less impressive as the Rookie Lee, a cowardly lothario with a misogynistic streak. Rookie is desperately trying to borrow enough money to pay for the two prize Siamese fighting fish he accidentally killed. The fish belong to the deceptively named gangster Ladyboy, who threatens to break the Rookie’s kneecaps if he doesn’t come up with the money. Shiels moves with a swagger, and the expressiveness of his face tells you all you need to know. His description of a fight between Howie and Ladyboy is epic in its detailing of blood and gore, and Shiels delivers the passage with awe and incomprehension.
Male bonding is a primary theme of the play. Some moments even verge on the homoerotic, such as when the Howie Lee strokes the Rookie’s cheek; though Rookie quickly lets the audience know this was “not gay-like,” the moment is one of the play’s strongest. A gay character, Ollie, also features prominently in the story as a catalyst for the first half of the show’s events.
The set design by Es Devlin is simple, yet stylish. There are no props or elaborate set pieces to clutter up the stage. A wooden wall with a streak of barbed wire running across the middle serves as the backdrop, allowing the actors to bring to life O’Rowe’s vivid imagery with nothing more than their bodies and voices. The characters are depicted as brutish, and each of them has numerous shortcomings. Some of the play’s events come across as somewhat contrived, but O’Rowe still manages to pull off an oddly touching tale, rich and complex.