Marie Jones' New York premiere is a treat but doesn't take off, says Dan Bacalzo
Those going into Marie Jones' Rock Doves expecting anything resembling the inspired brilliance of her Olivier award-winning international hit Stones in His Pockets will be disappointed. The playwright's latest world premiere, helmed by her husband and Stones... director Ian McElhinney at the Irish Arts Center, may deal with some interesting subject matter, but it's a fairly humdrum drama with far too many melodramatic tendencies.
The play is set in current-day Belfast, and deals with the after-effects of the Troubles that officially came to an end in the mid-1990s, but which continue to inform the lives of the city's inhabitants. The action centers around four misfits on the fringe of society: Knacker (Marty Maguire), an alcoholic squatter with a penchant for watching a TV with no electricity; Bella (Natalie Brown), an aging former prostitute and Knacker's best friend; Lillian (Tim Ruddy), Bella's transvestite brother who performs nightclub entertainment as a Tina Turner impersonator; and a nameless teenager known only as 'the boy' (Johnny Hopkins), who's on the run and claims to be a top ranker in a loyalist paramilitary.
Those unfamiliar with Irish politics and the in-fighting that resulted following the end of the decades-long conflict may have some trouble following portions of the play. While Jones packs the work with a lot of character exposition, she assumes a background knowledge of the way some of the more prominent paramilitary organizations have begun to traffic in drugs, prostitution, and other forms of crime in order to keep some of the status they formally enjoyed. A program note from McElhinney helps rectify this somewhat, but a little more information within the play itself would have been helpful for American audiences, especially as this backdrop is Rock Doves most compelling aspect.
The characters' secrets, revelations, and betrayals are less engaging. While there are some fine moments and humorous lines, the play spends far too long introducing the characters and setting up the action. The first act, in particular, has very little forward momentum. Once things do come to a head, they unfold in a melodramatic fashion, with too many coincidences to be completely believable.
Maguire does a good job at conveying Knacker's anxieties, and making the audience wonder if he is feigning madness or really suffering from it. His more emotional turn towards the end of the play is nicely handled. Brown also does fine work, capturing the contradictory impulses of Bella's hardened exterior and warm-hearted interior.
Hopkins stays too much on one note through most of the play, indicating his emotions and intentions in far too broad a manner. Still, his final scene with Knacker is quite strong, partly because the actor doesn't push and lets the moment unfold quietly. Ruddy doesn't make for a particularly convincing drag queen (especially during his first appearance in an extremely non-flattering outfit from costumer Chris Rumery). Worse still, he barely scratches the complexity of emotions that should have been triggered by Lillian's actions towards the play's end.
Jones' talents as a writer are still in evidence and the material is good enough to maintain audience interest for its two hours running time. But while there's certainly potential in examining Belfast life following the Troubles, that promise is only partially fulfilled here.