Romantic regret and stubborn optimism seem as intertwined in the national character of Ireland as a Saint Brigid’s cross, and those qualities suffuse Once, the 2012 musical adapted by Irish playwright Enda Walsh from John Carney’s original 2007 screenplay of the same title. That this Irish tale, which is not quite a love story but is also totally a love story, opened onstage at Writers last week in between Valentine’s and Saint Patrick’s Days feels absolutely apropos.
Through 4/16: Wed 3 and 7:30 PM, Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2 and 6 PM; Wed 3/29 7:30 PM only, Sat 4/1 3 PM only; Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe, 847-242-6000, writerstheatre.org, $35-$90
Guy (Matt Mueller) is a struggling busker and songwriter in Dublin whose life seems to be taking a few too many pages from a Nick Hornby novel: girlfriend has run off to New York with another man, Mom is dead, and he’s resigned to spending his life working in the vacuum cleaner repair shop run by his loving but taciturn dad (Ron E. Rains). But Girl (Dana Saleh Omar), a straight-shooting Czech immigrant he meets while playing on the street, tells him he needs to keep playing his songs. And he should actually record them and use them to win back his lost love—anything to stop his dreams from dying.
In the usual Manic Pixie Dream Girl scenario (beloved mostly by male screenwriters), Girl would transform into Muse, and hot sex would inevitably follow. But in Once, the latter never happens. Girl is separated from her Czech husband and lives with her mother (the splendid Bethany Thomas), her young daughter, and three other immigrant friends (who, conveniently, also play music). But that doesn’t mean she’s looking to hook up, as she makes abundantly clear to Guy early on when he makes a pass at her.
Once nabbed eight Tony Awards, including best musical, in its Broadway premiere. Much of that is undoubtedly down to the songs themselves (written by the stars of the film, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová), which range from the wistful “Falling Slowly” (which won the duo the Academy Award for best song) to the stirring “When Your Mind’s Made Up.” At Writers, nearly the entire ensemble under the direction of Katie Spelman (who also choreographs) play instruments ranging from cello to mandolin, and the intimacy of the space makes us feel like we’re at an Irish seisiún—especially during the lengthy and spirited preshow performance, which features everything from the trad favorite “Molly Malone” (Dublin’s unofficial anthem) to “This Must Be the Place” by the Talking Heads.
But what truly makes Once irresistible is the way it resists indulging the tropes of most guy-and-girl meet-cute romances. Sure, Girl just happens to have a Hoover in need of repair, which gives her an excuse to drop by Guy’s shop after their chance meeting on the street. She also just happens to have a friend who runs a music shop, where she practices at the piano and helps Guy finish the lyrics for his songs. In a film like, well, Music and Lyrics (also from 2007), creative collaboration sparks deeper emotional passion. And so it does here as well.
Both Guy and Girl grow to care deeply for each other. As played by Mueller and Omar, they’re kindred spirits, filled with wry humor that doesn’t ever mask their vulnerability. “You enjoy being Irish?” Girl asks Guy early on. “Seriously?” he replies. “I’m always serious. I’m Czech,” she ripostes in a perfect taking-the-piss deadpan tone.
Perhaps that’s one reason a straight path to requited love won’t work for these two endearing souls. They can’t bullshit themselves or each other about being over their past loves. Girl does eventually tell Guy “I love you”—but only in Czech. The translations of the Czech dialogue (including a hilarious meandering toast by Thomas) appear on supertitles above Joonhee Park’s spare but evocative set design, which at one point captures a stunning view of Dublin from a hillside, suggested only by a panoply of lights in the distance, as if Girl and Guy are ready to fly away. (Lovely projection and lighting work by Erin Pleake and Yael Lubetzky, respectively.)
But what can’t be said directly can be sung. And sing they do, with warmth and pain and an absolutely gut-wrenching, yet inspiring, belief that maybe a song can be enough to change a life and to help another person to “take this sinking boat and point it home,” as the lyrics to “Falling Softly” put it. Once is a deceptively quiet show that roars with truth and resists stereotypes and cynicism. At Writers, it’s absolutely enchanting.