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Review: A Pair of Siblings Are Stuck at Home With an Ailing Parent in Autumn Royal

Kevin Barry's two-hander makes its American debut at Irish Repertory Theatre.

John Keating and Maeve Higgins in Kevin Barry's Autumn Royal, directed by Ciarán O'Reilly, at Irish Repertory Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

A lot of us got an idea of what it's like to be confined with family members during the past year — and found out that it doesn't take long for the people we care about to start working our last nerve. But for many of us now, that period of confinement is over. Not so for the two do-nothing siblings in Kevin Barry's 2017 dark comedy Autumn Royal. They've been cooped up with a mentally deteriorating father for years in a house that is literally crumbling around them — and they seem quite comfortable losing their heads together. But is their father the reason they haven't been able to move on with their lives, or is it something else?

That's the question at the center of this chipper though ultimately unsatisfying play now making its American premiere at Irish Repertory Theatre. While peppered with Barry's trademark quippy humor — he is best known for novels such as City of Bohane and Night Boat to TangierAutumn Royal feels like a play that could have easily been made into a taut thriller but instead settles into being a run-of-the-mill family drama with just enough laughs to keep it conscious for 70 minutes.

That those laughs land at all is testament to the acting chops of Maeve Higgins and John Keating, who play sister and brother May and Timothy, both trapped in a kind of suspended adolescence in the city of Cork, Ireland. "Take it back," he shouts at her petulantly when we first meet them in the middle of one of their tit for tats. At the same time, their father, whom we never see, stomps around in the room above sending plaster down from a decaying ceiling (appropriately claustrophobic set design by Charlie Corcoran). Their mother fled from the family years ago, but every now and then she makes a ghostly appearance at the top of road and stares down at the house.

John Keating and Maeve Higgins in Autumn Royal.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Tim wants to get out too, and he has big plans of becoming a surfer in Australia. May, wearing sweats and throwback T-shirts (costumes by China Lee), passes the time by making mean remarks about her neighbors (these crude comments constitute most of the play's comedic gems). But what to do about Dad, who's been mumbling the same single line of poetry for the last six months? The two rifle through a phone book in search of a nursing home and find one called Autumn Royal, to which they send their father kicking and screaming. But even with him gone, May and Tim can't seem to get their acts together. If it isn't their father who's was keeping this jobless pair tethered to the house, what is it?

Barry gives us some insight into the buried traumas that the siblings have experienced through a series of flashbacks in which hauntingly effective projections, designed by Dan Scully, glide spookily across the walls, while subdued music by Ryan Rumery lolls in the air like the tired chimes of an old grandfather clock. We learn, for example, that their religious father disliked May and thought she was an actual devil. In the end, though, Barry makes a soupy muddle of these memories, and director Ciarán O'Reilly isn't able to give them the resonance that would make us feel for these ne'er-do-wells, their abusive father, or their mother whose spectral presence hangs over the house.

There is a brief, exciting moment in the play where May and Tim consider bumping the old man off, and it feels as though, for a moment, Barry might have considered going in this direction with his story but shied away from the idea in favor of an easy, open-ended conclusion. Too bad. Because without any real dramatic tension, the play circles around itself in a series of mundane revelations about yet one more dysfunctional family. And we don't have to leave home for that.