"Two contestants center ring. O'Rourke hovering between them, a hand on Christian's back and another on the Admiral's elbow. 'Now remember, no hitting on the break. No rabbit punches. I'm going to watch for any foul blows in this. I want a clean racist fight."

- J.P. Donleavy from A Fairy Tale of New York

Photo, courtesy Bill Dunn
This article/review first appeared in The Stranger, Feb. 24, 2000.

"Fairy Tails of New York"

by Tom Spurgeon

Thurs-Sat at 8, through March 4. Theatre Under the Influence's production of J.P. Donleavy's Fairy Tales of New York sounds like a fringe theatre gimme: a respected writer know for searing language and larger-that-life characters; a little-known play version of one of his more interesting novels; and an experienced local director for whom the show is a professed labor of love. But staging the American-born Irish writer's work risks playing to its broader, coarser strengths - lurid characters and forceful dialogue - at the expense of its deeper and more significant insights.

Some of that risk is mitigated through staging: Donleavy's more formally interesting applications of language are preserved through direct readings, and good ensemble acting takes care of the rest. Donleavy's lead, Cornelius Christian, could be played as a smug anti-hero fighting the rudenesses of modern society, but actor Brian Whitehead's Christian is restrained, remaining an intriguing cipher rather than a full-on boor. This makes Fairy Tales less about Christian's making a place for himself in post-World War II New York, and more about how that city accommodates a difficult and sometimes self-delusional soul.

As a result, the focus falls on the supporting players, all of whom do good work in multiple roles. Jen Taylor and Andy McCone are effective in both their broad and more subtle portrayals, while Charles Leggett nails the crucial role of funeral home director Norman Vine: willfully clueless, but genuine and humane.

But what makes Fairy Tales of New York worth seeing is director Craig Bradshaw's approach to pacing. The play's best scenes use the expectations of dramatic momentum to underscore the isolation and confusion of its characters. The agony of Taylor's Charlotte Graves in the final vignette, as the accouterments of a fancy dinner with Cornelius Christian are taken from her, subverts Christian's eventual fanciful return. The two characters are bound far more effectively by their loneliness than by the grand gesture of Christian that closes the show. Bradshaw and his cast explore nuances in Donleavy's work a less able company would have ignored.

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