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Review: Heaven Imagines Brief Moments of Paradise at an Irish Wedding

Eugene O'Brien's two-hander makes its US debut as part of Origin's 1st Irish.

Andrew Bennett and Janet Moran star in Eugene O'Brien's Heaven, directed by Jim Culleton, at 59E59.
(© Ste Murray)

Weddings are transitional moments, when two people stand on the threshold between one chamber of their lives and the next. And as they pass through, they often rip open the fabric of time, allowing their guests to peer back at their own liminal moments, the rooms not entered and the lives not lived. At least, that is the case for the two characters in Eugene O'Brien's Heaven, which is now making its US debut at 59E59 under the banner of Fishamble: The New Play Company and as part of Origin's 1st Irish Festival.

It's about 50-something married couple Mairead (Janet Moran) and Mal (Andrew Bennett), who have returned to their small hometown in the Irish Midlands to attend a wedding. From the moment Mairead sets foot in the old pub, she encounters a beloved ex-boyfriend and reflects on the Ryanair flight to Birmingham they once took to get an abortion (this is blessedly not something Irish women have to do anymore, although their fellow Catholic islanders, the Maltese, still perform the pilgrimage in their hundreds). All these years later, she finds him very alluring.

Mal might agree with her. He has never shaken his preference for men, and the many hours he has spent staring at Christ and his chiseled abs on the cross have only contributed to his lust. He is instantly smitten with the groom's young friend, whom he refers to as "Jesus," obsessing over the boy like the protagonist of a Thomas Mann novella, Death in Portlaoise.

For one magical night, man and wife walk down their roads not traveled and indulge in their truest desires. And to build up the courage, all they need to do is get totally wasted.

Andrew Bennett plays Mal in Eugene O'Brien's Heaven, directed by Jim Culleton, at 59E59.
(© Ste Murray)

As is the case with so many contemporary Irish plays, Heaven features two actors directly addressing the audience, but never addressing each other (see, for example, Molly Sweeney, Pumpgirl, and Little Gem). I personally dislike this form, which seems to me the negation of drama — although its unyielding confession captures something authentic about the Irish spirit, as anyone who has been cornered with a longwinded bar story can attest. "Every single body in the room is hell bent on telling each other a whole bunch of stuff but nobody is listening," Mal observes about a late stage of the party, fairly summing up the feeling of witnessing this style of theater.

In fairness, the dueling monologues work better here, since Mairead and Mal are very much on individual quests that require the absence of a spouse to complete. It helps that Moran and Bennett are particularly gifted actors, making Heaven feel like an old story well-told. They easily stick the landing on some of O'Brien's more colorful turns of phrase, like "fierce cunt of a playground terrorist" and "she's on more than Bacardi Breezers."

Janet Moran plays Mairead in Eugene O'Brien's Heaven, directed by Jim Culleton, at 59E59.
(© Ste Murray)

There's little slack in director Jim Culleton's staging, which takes place on a set that blurs the line between church and pub, convincingly conveying the hazy memories that will surely result from such a night (simple and smart work by Zia Bergin-Holly). Saileóg O'Halloran costumes both actors in believably off-the-rack wedding attire, perfectly befitting a closeted schoolteacher and his sex-starved wife.

Heaven is not the most tragic tale as far as dramas written by Eugene O's are concerned. Nor is it the most original (I sadly doubt this will be the last mashup of Irish monologues to which New York audiences will be subjected). But it does capture the truth of this moment in history, especially for members of Ireland's Generation X, who were born in one country and will die in another. They're like the generations of Irish immigrants who came before them, but they never have to leave the island. As Ireland stands on the threshold between poor conservative country and what it will become in this century, I predict that we will have to listen to a lot more theatrical confession.