It's Friday night in Western Ireland and something weird is happening in Laoisa Sexton's The Pigeon in the Taj Mahal, now making its world premiere in the basement of the Irish Repertory Theatre. The intimate space is perfect for this oddly charming little play about people coming together over seemingly insurmountable cultural barriers.
The titular "Pigeon" is Eddie (John Keating), an Elvis-obsessed middle-aged man who lives in a West Ireland trailer park ridiculously named the Taj Mahal. Unfailingly friendly and prone to repeat anecdotes, one gets the impression that he is slightly "touched," as Lolly puts it. Lolly (portrayed by playwright Sexton) is a bride-to-be who Pigeon finds passed out in his garden. He brings her inside and talks to her for a good 20 minutes, even though she's unconscious. He tells stories about Elvis, his deceased mother, and his childhood: "One time, I found this bunny rabbit, we named him Johnny Logan, because he won the Eurovision that year but he ate up all the furniture, so Mammy says he had to go." Coincidentally, Lolly looks like a Eurovision contestant someone sent through the spin cycle: Her lipstick is smudged everywhere and the tulle from her frilly pink tutu is fraying (morning-after-bachelorette-party realness by Martha Hally). When a cup of tea finally revives her, she is naturally alarmed to be in a strange man's trailer, so she threatens Pigeon with a hammer. But this is an Irish play, after all, so she's not leaving without delivering her own extended expository monologue.
Eventually, Lolly's Aunt Rosie (Zoë Watkins) arrives wearing a translucent purple fanny pack and a necklace of little plastic phalluses, like a latter-day witch doctor. Fast behind her is Lolly's betrothed, Josie (Johnny Hopkins), a hot-tempered criminal who dumped her in the trailer park at the top of the show. When he arrives, he seems more concerned with the whereabouts of his cocaine baggy than his fiancé.
With a typically Irish handle of language and its comic potential, Sexton draws laughs by contrasting Pigeon's time-warped existence with the trashy excess of Lolly and her ilk. While Pigeon keeps his money in a tin can and frets about the banshee, Lolly describes her dream wedding of pink Hummer limos and a giant cake, all paid for on the Visa. These iPhone and credit card-wielding denizens of Limerick might as well be from Mars, but Pigeon treats them hospitably all the same.
As an actress, Sexton is particularly good at delivering her strange synthesis of Irish slang and American Valley girl speak, adding the word "like" in the unlikeliest of places: "Cry me a river, build me a bridge and get over it like!" Watkins matches her in vulgar sass, although her accent occasionally migrates east to cockney. Sporting a sleeve of tattoos and a mean-looking driver's cap, Hopkins gives Johnny a Brando-esque growl that is more absurd than it is menacing. They all seem to be starring in their own reality TV show — everyone but our protagonist.
As Pigeon, Keating gives the heftiest performance, fully inhabiting a specific rhythm that feels very real in its strict artifice. His canned responses and permanent smile are callouses built from a lifetime of social missteps made by a man who truly cannot take the temperature of the room — better to always seem nonthreatening and helpful. By the end of the play, we feel very protective of this gentle soul, especially when surrounded by such greedy invaders.
Director Alan Cox commits to the tonal contrast of the script in staging and design. Set designer Charlie Corcoran outfits Pigeon's trailer with an authentically ugly 1970s wallpaper pattern, with flimsy faux-wood furnishings. Photos of Elvis take the wall space that would typically be reserved for pictures of saints and the Virgin Mary in most other Irish households. The world outside the trailer is far eerier: Sound designer Ryan Rumery creates the howls of mythic beasts, shrouded in the darkness of Michael O'Connor's spooky lighting.
Sexton subtitles her play "A Modern Fairytale," so there is naturally some magical realism that arrives in the form of a deus ex machina. It seems half-considered and cannot really compete with the real magic in this play: Despite her myriad 21st-century distractions, Lolly becomes enchanted by Pigeon's simple decency. It makes one wonder if kindness is a spell that works offstage as well as on.