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Northern Ireland takes center stage in the latest U.S. debut at Irish Rep.

Declan Conlon, Robert Zawadzki, and Patrick O'Kane star in Owen McCafferty's Quietly, directed by Jimmy Fay, at the Irish Repertory Theatre.
(© James Higgins)

Bartender Robert (Robert Zawadzki) presides over an empty pub in Belfast. "What am I doing here? I want to go back to Poland," he says to himself in lightly accented English. These are the opening moments of the Abbey Theatre production of Owen McCafferty's Quietly, now making its U.S. debut at Irish Repertory Theatre in association with the Public Theater. We also wonder what Robert is doing in this enigmatic play, the mysteries of which remain fresh long after the final bow. His story seems much bigger than we're allowed to know; instead, we watch him watching the World Cup match between Northern Ireland and Poland (his current and former homes) while serving cheap beer to his only two customers of the night.

The first to arrive is Jimmy (Patrick O'Kane), a man who walks with a limp acquired during the botched robbery of a candy store (or so he says) when he was 17. With hawk-like eyes and a permanent scowl, O'Kane embodies the wary rage of his character: He's older and wiser now, but still cannot let go of his bitterness. He downs beer after beer, throwing gasoline on the fire crackling in his gut.

By contrast, Declan Conlon's Ian (the late-arriving second customer) has the stoic serenity of a Buddhist monk, a quality made even more remarkable after the vicious head-butt Jimmy gives him when he first walks through the door. Cool as a cucumber, Ian gets up and walks to the other side of the room before asking, "That the only reason you agreed to see me?"

Patrick O'Kane plays Jimmy in Quietly.
(© James Higgins)

Obviously, it's not: We soon learn that these two men (one a Protestant, the other a Catholic) have a very painful shared past deeply entangled in the history of their country. McCafferty unpacks their story in that most Irish of fashions: extended monologues recounting painful memories. Luckily, the three actors in this cast are particularly good at painting vivid pictures with their tongues. And since the bulk of the memories shared in this 75-minute drama take place in a bar, it helps in the visualization that we are staring directly at one.

Alyson Cummins' detailed set is convincingly realistic, complete with a working beer tap, an electronic poker machine, and those frustrating European liquor dispensers that prevent bartenders from engaging in favoritism. Sinéad McKenna lights the space in a way that suggests a time after happy hour, but before what can truly be considered night time. We can hear the faint rumbling of soccer hooligans in Philip Stewart's ambient sound design. The blare of the television is more pronounced. We are led to believe that the screen hangs on the invisible fourth wall of the set, causing all three actors to regularly deliver their lines looking out above the audience.

Director Jimmy Fay endows this production with plenty of deafening silences as the three men stare up at the TV screen. The air is charged with electricity as Ian and Jimmy struggle to find the words they want to say to each other. Meanwhile, Robert remains trapped behind the bar with no other patrons to distract him, pretending not to notice the fraught reunion happening in this deserted pub (Zawadzki does this with the perfect mixture of discretion and vigilance). In these moments, we viscerally understand how incredibly lonely it must feel to be a heterosexual male in the West these days.

Jimmy (Patrick O'Kane) listens to Ian (Declan Conlon) as Robert (Robert Zawadzki) stealthily observes from behind the bar in Quietly.
(© James Higgins)

While Robert's presence might at first seem superfluous and even awkward, he's a visual reminder of just how much Northern Ireland has changed since 1974: Once plagued by violent sectarian strife, it is now an economically vibrant magnet for foreign workers. The "freedom of movement" guaranteed by the European Union means that it is not particularly remarkable to meet a Polish bartender in Belfast. And since both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom became EU member states, the political separation of Ireland from its Northeastern quadrant has really amounted to a big "so what?" All this raises a question: By choosing to exit the European Union, did UK voters unwittingly pick the scab off an old wound in Northern Ireland?

It's too early to know that, but McCafferty's play feels incredibly prescient in light of changing circumstances. Maintaining a vague air of menace and intrigue, Quietly never allows us to settle into a false sense of security. It's a good posture for life in general.