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Crackskull Row

The grimly named thoroughfare in Honor Molloy's dark family drama is decidedly not Sesame Street.

John Charles McLaughlin, Colin Lane, and Gina Costigan star in Honor Molloy's Crackskull Row, directed by Kira Simring, for the Cell at the Workshop Theater.
(© Michael Bonasio)

Flesh peels off the walls in Daniel Geggatt's enchanting set for Crackskull Row, Honor Molloy's less-than-enchanting play about poverty, incest, and regret (now making its world premiere with the Cell at the Workshop Theater). Junk-food wrappers are strewn across the floor while dusty books hold up an ancient couch. Flashing orange hazard lamps pilfered from traffic barrels create a kind of artificial firelight, the only significant source of illumination in the house (appropriately eerie design by Gertjan Houben). It's an arresting first impression for a play that is seldom as spooky as it wants to be.

Masher Moorigan (Terry Donnelly) is the inhabitant of this hovel fit for a witch, conveniently located on Crackskull Row in Dublin's second postal district. She subsists on a diet of smarties, tea, and wormy biscuits, which she squirrels away under the couch cushions. When her daughter, Wee Dolly (an alluring and mischievous Gina Costigan), pops down the chimney for an argument, the story of how she got to this pathetic state begins to unfold. Masher was once Dolly (not to be confused with Wee Dolly), a lady of the night partnered with Basher (Colin Lane), a professional fiddle player and drunk. Their shoeless son, Rasher (John Charles McLaughlin), has the hots for mom, leading to the kind of family dysfunction and violence that would make Edward Bond blush.

Young Rash (John Charles McLaughlin) and Dolly (Gina Costigan) share a flirty moment in Crackskull Row.
(© Michael Bonasio)

In truth, incest has been a favorite topic in the theater since Sophocles, so nothing is particularly shocking about this latter-day tragedy with elements of magical realism. Molloy attempts to connect her story to the realities of modern Ireland (apparently, the real estate market is booming on Cracksull Row), but contemporary allusions never feel like more than comic relief. Purely from a plot perspective, the play is occasionally reminiscent of Sam Shepard's Buried Child, grasping at mythology in the vernacular.

But while the story may feel derivative, the language throughout the show is entirely original — a variation on English that takes the typical Irish patois and spins it around in a blender. Try to make sense of this line: "Couldn't sleep for the bappitties. His music down the stairs. Thumb to the goatskin. Battering out. Fa-pitty, bappitty goes my head. I'm battering out." Between Rasher, Basher, Masher and adjectives like "weeshy" and "homeo-repairitty," Molloy's playful language is really the star of the show. It verges on twee in its own bleak Irish way, but its musicality is truly enjoyable.

Impressively, the four-person cast never flinches, making Molloy's whimsical poetry seem perfectly natural. Donnelly is especially convincing as Masher: She is so committed to the reality of her imaginary world that we can never tell where hallucination begins and ends. As Young Rash, the boyishly handsome McLaughlin plays a starving class Oedipus with an appropriate mixture of charm and icky sexual bravado. Lane is perfectly haggard as the older version of the young man, wizened (but perhaps not wiser) from time and drink. Costigan and Donnelly play the same role at different stages of life, with Lane playing both father and son. McLaughlin, in turn, plays the son and spirit in this unholy trinity. Some viewers will undoubtedly be charmed by the double casting, while others will just find it needlessly confusing.

John Charles McLaughlin and Terry Donnelly star in Crackskull Row.
(© Michael Bonasio)

Kira Simring helps to make things slightly clearer by directing the cast toward their distinct performances. Costume designer Siena Zoë Allen also offers us a few haunting visual clues: Masher's blouse, which bears an identical pattern to Dolly's silk robe, but is weathered nearly beyond recognition, is a really nice touch.

Still, one gets the sense that the playwright is not as committed to tone as the design team: The horrible events of the story are often lost in Molloy's witty wordplay. By the time the climax comes, it is too over-the-top to take seriously. Crackskull Row is intensely literate and fun to hear (especially when recited by this superb cast), but its uncomfortable aura of Irish poverty fetishism may be the scariest ghost conjured by this attempt at stage magic.