New York State of Mind

Contrasting Belfast and the Big Apple is no big deal, says Brendan Deeds

Sam McCready was one of the founder members of the Lyric Players Theatre, going on to lecture in drama in the US where he directed several off-Broadway productions. Back in NI after 20 years in America, with New York State of Mind he has penned what is in many ways a bitter-sweet love letter to the stage.

The play is a three-hander focussing on the back and forth of letters between brash Belfast actor and aspiring Broadway star Billy McIlroy and his friend and mentor RJ McGibbon, a veteran of the Ulster stage who (between monotonous anecdotes of times acting along side Larry Olivier) attempts to give Billy some advice on the pitfalls of an acting career.

McGibbon's words fall on deaf ears, though, as Billy is a man whose hunger for fame is matched only by his hunger for the chemical and carnal vices that can come with celebrity. His ego out of control and with his long suffering wife back home in Belfast, Billy loses himself, drunk on his own ego and various other substances. McIlroy becomes another casualty amongst New York’s glittering lights.

Roland Jaquarello’s direction does little to breathe life into such a clichéd plot. RJ McGibbon sits on the left side of the stage, a redbrick wall behind him signifying Belfast, while Billy stands on the right with a patch of sidewalk and 8 feet of fire escape symbolising New York. What follows is a ping-pong as each actor, writing or reading a letter, deliver what in essence is a monologue. There is no chemistry interaction between them, and the play suffers as a consequence.

The are some fine performances from the cast, though. Harry Towb bestows RJ with a grace and charm and even though he barely leaves the one spot throughout the play, he is the heart of the show. When Billy tells RJ that he knows RJ lied when he claimed to be old friends with Sir Ian McKellen, the expression on Towb’s face is heartbreaking. He invests more character and pathos into his role than exists in the writing.

Laine Megaw does a sterling job of providing a sense of inner life to the character of Billy’s wife but the character is severely underwritten - her time on stage cannot be more than 20 minutes and seems to have been added as more of a token gesture than to layer the drama. She is a fine actress who deserves much better parts.

David Ireland has a talent for comic roles and is at his best when showing Billy at his most foolish. He milks every laugh from his role as an old doyenne of Billy’s family but the performance wouldn't have been out of place in a pantomime or Jimmy Young sketch. This was cringeworthy, equalled when he mimes Billy  receiving an 'erotic massage' from a bimbo, complete with 'happy ending'.

Though the play seems concerned to paint a mosaic of the frantic life of Broadway and there are some interesting characters to be found, more interesting ones are merely hinted at. When Billy finds out a friend of his has died of AIDS, the audience feel nothing because this character wasn’t properly sketched.

McCready begins a partial discussion on the merits of classical over method acting but this too is thin. Similarly he tries to create the sense that the demons which cause Billy’s downfall are as much Belfast’s as they are his own, but this fails to form anything substantial.

There is such little interaction between the cast that with a little tinkering, New York State of Mind could work much better as a radio play. Although it would still be crippled by a limp and lacklustre script, making this play of letters nothing to write home about.