Monday, March 14, 2005.

Remembering When Conversation was King

By Peter Filichia
Star-Ledger Staff

So how did people spend their evenings before radio, television, computers, records, CDs, and video games?
For one thing, they talked to each other and told stories.

West Orange native John Dandola has reminded us of those long-ago days in Tales of a Public House, his engaging new play at the Celtic Theatre Company of South Orange.

Dandola took some of William Carleton's short stories, put them in an Irish pub, and has customer after customer try to top the story that was told before his.

So it goes for an hour-and-a-half. Frankly, the evening should be 15 minutes shorter—not because Dandola has overwritten, but because he's put an intermission smack dab in the middle of the piece.
[The intermission was entirely the producer's idea and decision.] There are no intermissions in pubs. Once people start talking, they keep talking, right up till last call. Continuous action would have helped the piece build momentum.

Still, it's an endearing 90 minutes, for director Rich McNanna has certainly created a pub's happy-go-lucky mood as a story starts unfolding. Then he makes his actors adopt an eerie tone as each plot thickens.

En route, there is much lifting of glasses, and draining of them, too. So it's not too long before everyone starts singing along, resulting in eight mellifluous numbers.

But it's not all song and dance. A story can get gory—such as when a family named Lynch gets lynched. That caused a semi-besotted patron to make the sign of the cross. Of course there's much editorializing during each tale. ("Surely, he must have been a Protestant!") And when the story's time-honored moral arrives, there's much nodding and "ayes" said in heartfelt endorsement.

Though most of the stories are of the severed head variety, the evening concludes with the cautionary tale of a man who married too soon and even sooner regretted it. That may ultimately be the scariest story of them all.
Frequent visitors to Celtic expect to see theater-in-the-round when they enter the playhouse on the Seton Hall campus. Here, though, McNanna has transformed the space into theater-in-a-semi-circle. By bisecting the stage, he makes the front half the pub, and sporadically uses the space behind to dramatize some of the tales.

So when Father Ned (the always reliable Pat Hughes) is telling of poor Jack McGinnis, threatened with decapitation if he doesn't clean the stables of his stern kidnapper, behind the action is the harried Salvador Castillo shoveling like mad while Damien Dimino look on, arms akimbo.

There is, however, an artificiality in the way McNanna stages the actors who relate the tales. The storytellers come to the lip of the stage and almost exclusively talk to the Celtic audience. McNanna would have created a more realistic and effective environment if he had had his actors go from barfly to barfly, speaking directing to each, and scaring them with every frightful disclosure.

The best performance is delivered by Joe Bukovec. The silver-haired and silver-tongued actor gets to play two roles: A fire-and-brimstone schoolmaster in the first tale, and later, a yarn spinner who believes he can teach the rest of the storytellers a thing or two about "structure, brevity—and shoveling manure."

In a play where each of the storytellers must entertain his peers, every one winds up doing much better than that. They all entertain the Celtic audience, too.

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