As a history lesson, Cyprus Avenue, which just opened at Off Broadway’s Public Theater, is actually quite illuminating. I had no idea that a native of Belfast could be considered anything other than Irish. But as Eric (played by Stephen Rea) tells his therapist Bridget (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo), nationality is about much more than just a spot on a map: “The last thing I am is Irish. My grandfather was killed in the Battle of the Somme. My father died at Dunkirk. And I too would die for my right to be British.”
However, as a play, Cyprus Avenue—a coproduction of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and London’s Royal Court Theatre—is a frustrating, even excruciating, 100-minute exercise. All we learn about Eric, on whom David Ireland hangs his entire plot (such as it is), is that he has an unhealthy obsession with Catholics, or “Fenians” as he derogatorily calls them, whom he believes are trying to destroy his, and his country’s, Protestant identity. Especially that “Fenian f‐‐‐er Gerry Adams,” whom Eric is convinced is a dead ringer for his newborn granddaughter, Mary-May.
If you don’t know who Gerry Adams is—and I suspect many audience members don’t—you quickly learn that he’s the president of Sinn Féin. (Or he was, until mid-February 2018.) But if you can’t picture him with his tiny glasses and full beard—and I suspect most audience members can’t—you miss out on a lengthy overdrawn joke, which really gains steam when Eric dresses Mary-May in Build-A-Bear spectacles and scribbles a black Magic Marker beard on her face.
After a loony, and rather amusing, rant against his daughter, Julie (Amy Molloy)—“I did not raise my daughter to copulate with the agents of Rome! I did not conceive a papal whore!”—Eric’s wife, Bernie (Andrea Irvine), kicks him to the curb. But that’s only the beginning of Eric’s descent into bizarre-world, which ends in an out-of-nowhere, very graphic act of violence.
Despite a mid-play monologue about Eric’s drunken foray into a London Irish pub—in which he recalls “weird little Fenian eyes twinkling at me seductively,” “their exotic Catholic hairdos, direct from the salons of the Vatican,” and “beards so black they could be Argentinian whoremasters”—we get precious little insight into the proudly British Eric’s presumably prejudiced upbringing. And the most illuminating bit about a drawn-out exchange with a blood-thirsty self-proclaimed Fenian-hater named Slim (Chris Corrigan) is an unexpectedly astute critique of the cinematic oeuvre of Ron Howard, plus a well-placed nod to Rea’s Interview with the Vampire.
Considering that his character is practically a cipher, Rea does an admirable job creating something out of nothing, and navigates the script’s jarring tonal shifts, from racial slurs to Gerry Adams beard jokes, with aplomb. (Those moody, absurdist Sam Shepard plays he’s been doing for the past decade or so have certainly paid off.)
Of course, Cyprus Avenue isn’t really about Gerry Adams; he only represents the pinnacle of Eric’s hatred—he’s everything he opposes politically and ideologically. So what if it wasn’t Gerry Adams? What if it was another divisive, inflammatory politician? Say, Donald Trump? (Just pulling a name out of a hat here, folks.) Would this story have been more effective had Eric stuck a tuft of orange Trolls Doll hair on Mary-May’s head and covered her cheeks and chin in Cheetos dust? Sadly, no. Eric would still have been full of hate and anger—and we would still be wondering why.
Cyprus Avenue opened June 25, 2018, and runs through July 29. Tickets and information: publictheater.org