The Hunt for Red Willie, Irish Repertory, at Victory Gardens Theater. This should have been a programming hit. Irish Repertory, recovering from recent financial troubles, scored the U.S. premiere of Ken Bourke’s Irish melodrama spoof, which has proved a popular holiday show at Dublin’s acclaimed Abbey Theatre. But all the things that have earned Irish Rep its reputation–great production values, exacting direction, well-crafted performances–are curiously absent, turning this potential cash cow into an embarrassing liability.

Matt O’Brien’s production literally gets off on the wrong foot. The first bit of stage business involves a hapless British officer tripping over the corpse of a freshly deceased British landowner frightened to death by the legendary demon Red Willie. But that overbroad, unconvincing trip–the physical-comedy equivalent of mugging–establishes a style so ham-handed that it obliterates whatever wit Bourke’s fast-paced script might contain. For the ensuing two hours the six cast members alternately over- and underplay their parts, failing to conjure up a coherent stage world. As a result Bourke’s farcical whodunit is neither intelligible nor funny.

But then it’s difficult to know just how much humor a more careful production might have conveyed given the play’s strained logic (anyone who gazes upon the mask of Red Willie dies of fright–except sometimes) and its dramatically irrelevant nods to various famous Irish plays.