City Lit Theatre

Four short stories–two by Frank O’Connor (who used to contribute to the New Yorker) and two by James Stephens–make up this evening of reader’s theater. Both authors are Irish humorists; other than that, there doesn’t seem to be any great reason for these short stories to share the same bill. The subtitle–“Myths of Early Life and Afterlife in Ireland”–is an unnecessary justification, and just the sort of thing to find following a colon in a title. What you really have here are three reminiscences of childhood and one tall tale about an Irishman’s adventures in the next world.

Of the two authors’ work, James Stephens’s is the more rambling. A Rhinoceros, Some Ladies, and a Horse is every bit as cohesive a story as its title implies. Essentially it’s an account by James (Mark Richard) of how he came to get and lose a job running errands for a theatrical agency. James is an eager-to-please teenager, but his feet are quicker than his wits. It’s these very characteristics that get James into trouble, as one complication leads to another, almost as if his life were a conspiracy to undo him. There’s no big gag or comic twist to the story; the humor is meant to reside in the way it’s told, using narrative digression for comic effect and milking the irony provided by James’s naive worldview. It’s a quaint piece, and about as funny as one of Norman Rockwell’s “humorous” paintings.

Stephens’s other contribution, The Threepenny Piece, is the tale of Brien O’Brien, who was never any good. When he dies he’s buried clutching a threepenny piece, which he loses on his way to Hell. Cuchulain, a seraph, finds the coin and pockets it. O’Brien insists it was stolen, and he raises such a racket that pretty soon the legions of the damned are chanting, “Who stole the threepenny piece?” and the business of Hell grinds to a halt. At this point, both O’Brien and Cuchulain are hauled up before the great Radamanthus and cast across the galaxy until they finally land, naked and penniless, by the side of a road. OK, so maybe it would be funnier if you knew something about Celtic mythology and ached to see it satirized. Anyhow, The Threepenny Piece, like the other Stephens story, is simply an imaginative spree, told more for the hell of it than for the sake of any profound insight.

Both of Frank O’Connor’s short stories are reminiscences of childhood. In My Oedipus Complex, a precocious and conniving only child named Larry (played by Bob Goddard) gleefully recounts the vendetta he mounts against his father, who comes home from the war and complicates Larry’s relationship with his mother. Since Larry is both narrator and principal character, we see everything from his viewpoint. The comic device, of course, is the reduction of a big, scary Freudian concept into childlike terms. The humor is generally cute and heartwarming–a bit too much so. There are occasional sardonic twists, yet nothing that would offend the Virgin Mother.

By far the best piece of the evening is The Drunkard, also by O’Connor. In this story, Larry tells how he is sent along with his father to a funeral in order to act as a “brake” on his father’s alcoholic tendency. But the moment his father’s back is turned Larry chugs his first pint of porter. Insight and euphoria are soon followed by nausea, outrage, and public spectacle. Meanwhile, Larry’s father doesn’t even get the chance to sneak a drink of his own.

O’Connor’s stories end with a happy, slightly ironic signature, which brings them to a point. By way of contrast, Stephens’s tales simply come to a point of rest. The question now is is this the sort of literature that makes you want to get dressed and drive somewhere you can’t park and sit in an audience to hear? As far as I’m concerned, no.

Sure, all of the stories–three of which feature a first-person narrator–lend themselves to oral reading. So far so good, but there’s nothing inherently theatrical in these short stories that would make seeing them an improvement over merely hearing them. What’s to look at? A guy sitting at a podium? And even when the narrator strays from the podium, or some ancillary characters appear (played by Page Hearn and Kelly Thompson), the effect is not stunning to the eye. All of which, after nine in the evening, gets to be dangerously close to a bedtime story.

Not to slight the readers. The principal readers, Mark Richard and Bob Goddard, are very good at what they do. Richard is the better actor/reader, in terms of physical personification, whereas Goddard’s talent is as a narrator, being more able to express the author’s attitude and intention. And all of the readers, for that matter, have pleasant voices capable of maintaining consistent, if patently fake, Irish accents.

What’s missing, it seems, is an active rapport with the audience. I noticed, when Goddard made his entrance to read The Drunkard, that his head was down and his eyes on the floor. Only when he began reading did his eyes light up with a semblance of animation. It was a practiced animation, one suited to the story and the storyteller. But not to the audience, and so that whole dimension is lost, that give-and-take between a storyteller and his audience. And it’s that dimension that could make these stories come to life. Especially these stories, if they’re to amount to anything more than the generic cuteness of an Irish Spring commercial. Yes, if Ireland were down the street, I’d get dressed and go to see it. Otherwise, I own an armchair, and I can read too.