Middle-aged Irish siblings May (Maeve Higgins) and Timothy (John Keating) are feeling a bit long in the tooth for their dreams, modest as they might be. The much more optimistic Timothy imagines a faraway Australian idyll of surfing and family life, despite an inability to do the former and having no prospects for the latter, while May is caught in a vise of self-defeating anger and regret that would make just leaving the Cork childhood home she occupies with her brother and invalid father a major step forward.
But life is a hopelessly fated exercise for May and Timothy as their intensely religious and never-seen dad rambles and rumbles about upstairs, running out the clock to his heavenly reward as he indifferently consumes most of his soon-to-be graying children’s best remaining days. Backed into a corner of last-ditch desperation, the siblings attempt to finally start their adulthoods by shipping the old man off to a nursing home, but, in this comically wretched world, salvation isn’t for everyone.
Previously only known for his novels and short stories, first-time playwright Kevin Barry brings the same full-hearted doom and gloom to the stage in Autumn Royal that was evidenced in his Booker-Prize-longlisted Night Boat to Tangier, unravelling May’s and Timothy’s forlorn existences with a compassion apparently meant not only for these two characters but also for anyone in the audience whose time is slipping away faster than their ability to enjoy it. In other words, Autumn Royal is the perfect midlife-crisis-cum-Covid play. (I dare the Irish Rep to use that in the advertisements!) Though Barry wrote it before the pandemic’s onset, this fraught two-hander has gained, perhaps against its will, a far deeper resonance from the subsequent worldwide catastrophe, a fact that doesn’t escape director Ciarán O’Reilly who turns Charlie Corcoran’s spare and icy set into a very lonely domestic island for May and Timothy to neither share nor experience anything fundamentally new other than, of course, the neighbors’ priggish judgment for wanting to shed their father for greener pastures.
Needless to say, Barry’s script is not teeming with dramatic growth, a shortcoming that becomes more problematic when the characters’ insular misery risks exceeding the audience’s sympathy. Whether incessantly digging into old emotional wounds that have never come close to healing or stoking each other’s bitterness at caring for the person who caused all these gaping psychic cuts, it occasionally becomes difficult to stop from seeking one’s own mental shelter from May and Timothy. But, in the end, the performances are too good to let our battered attention wander away from them.
As May, the more overtly traumatized sibling forced to suffer for her mother’s supposed sins, which include abandoning the family, Higgins is heartbreaking as she works through her character’s pain to find a moment of clarity, if not comfort. Timothy, meanwhile, just seems to be along for the unhappy ride, until Keating, the Irish Rep stalwart who in production after production has honed an unsettlingly mirthless smile, lends a foreboding weight to the proceedings that suggests a darker outcome than another nursing home might be in the offing for dear old dad.
At 70 minutes long, the play epitomizes the soul of brevity, with a lot being conveyed clearly and profoundly in as few words as possible. Still, it’s a challenge for Higgins and Keating to develop their sister-brother relationship, when so much of the play’s focus is about the unseen man above their heads. What helps to balance things out is an utterly charming dance number between May and Timothy, loosely choreographed to the U.K. hit song “Zoom” by Fat Larry’s Band, which quickly establishes the sense of a shared history and familial bond for the, at least temporarily, not so sullen siblings.
Barry’s succinct effort also benefits from an Irish Rep staple: reliably top-notch theatrical design. In addition to the aforementioned Corcoran, the rest of the superb production team visually and aurally fleshes out the more opaque crevices of Barry’s story. Enhanced by Ryan Rumery and Hidenori Nakajo’s chilling sound design and Michael Gottlieb’s equally unnerving lighting, Dan Scully’s ghostly time-warp projections add much-needed depth to several flashback monologues that hint at the abuse May and Timothy suffered at the hands of their now ailing father, causing him to feel even more like a circling albatross in the upstairs room. And China Lee’s costumes, particularly for the dressed-down May, are appropriately drab, suggesting a wearer barely with enough energy to get out of bed in the morning.
For the Irish Rep’s return to live performance, after a long Covid interval of hands-down the best online theatrical offerings anywhere, perhaps something lighthearted would have been more appropriate to mark the occasion. Wilde or Boucicault immediately come to mind. Then again, there’s no denying the times in which one endures, and it’s nice, I suppose, to receive a well-crafted reminder that, as human beings, we’re all enduring something–maybe even each other.
Autumn Royal (through November 21, 2021; streaming: November 29 – December 12, 2021)
Irish Repertory Theatre
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage, 132 West 22nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-727-2737 or visit http://www.irishrep.org
Running time: one hour and ten minutes with no intermission