Whether describing “Kermit” her new green personal vibrator, confessing her feelings or coping with life’s travails, Marsha Mason is superb as a salty Irish housewife in author Elaine Murphy’s engaging monologue play, Little Gem.
Set in contemporary Dublin, Little Gem introduces us to three hard-drinking women one by one. The teenaged Amber who arrives late is a typical adolescent who has a boyfriend and goes out clubbing. Her fortyish separated mother Lorraine pops Xanax, is in therapy, and goes to salsa dance classes. Her breast cancer survivor mother Kay’s content existence is upended by her beloved husband James’ stroke. Gem is his nickname.
Ms. Murphy’s writing is a rich amalgam of biographical data, pivotal incidents and humane observations. The monologue structure has the three characters alternately expressing themselves in the same recurring order with often all three on stage but not interacting with each other. Through this theatrical device, Murphy enacts her eventful scenario. At 100 minutes without an intermission, it does lag, particularly the introductory portions which too leisurely introduce the characters. However, Murphy does create three zesty roles.
In the early 1970’s Ms. Mason came to prominence on the New York stage and then became a movie star playing a prostitute in 1973’s Cinderella Liberty. During that era in a series of celebrated films written by her then husband Neil Simon, she established herself as a versatile actress with a captivating persona. In the ensuing decades she developed into an outstanding character actress primarily on television. This substantial stage appearance is a wonderful opportunity to experience her enduring talents. Her radiance, expressive facial features and that pleasing lustrous voice are traits that enriched The Goodbye Girl in 1977 and are all still present.
…by the time you get to our age you’d normally be lacing cocoa with arsenic not Viagra. I know it’s not the done thing talking about your sex life, but Jaysus, I’m the wrong side of sixty not dead. I haven’t had sex in well over a year and it’s killing me.
As Kay, Mason magnificently mines all of the comedy and pathos of the part while employing a light yet distinctive Irish accent. Eliciting much laughter with her tart responses, she is also shattering when volcanically reacting to a calamitous turn of events.
The tall, lean and animated Brenda Meaney is commanding as Lorraine. With her flowing curly red hair, booming vocal delivery and beaming countenance, Ms. Meaney is poignantly convincing as a single mother undergoing a mid-life crisis as romance unexpectedly enters.
Blonde, feisty and youthful, Lauren O’Leary is winning as Amber. Reveling in the part’s brashness, Ms. O’Leary perfectly conveys teenage rebelliousness, naiveté and fear.
That the performers have a believable familial connection is an element of Marc Atkinson Borrull’s exceptional direction. Mr. Borrull’s physical staging is an airy blend of strategic placement that achieves visual depth, avoiding a static state.
Scenic designer Meredith Ries provides a spacious recreation of a medical facility’s waiting room which is an intrinsic environment as each character has cause to seek medical attention. Through Michael O’Connor’s expert lighting design that artfully uses brightness, shadows and dimness the set also serves as various locations over a period of time. Sound designer Ryan Rumery subtly adds musical snippets that illustratively underscore the actions.
From Kay’s colorful print blouse and black slacks, to Lorraine’s stylish ensembles of varying pullovers and black jeans and Amber’s track jacket, tights and sneakers, costume designer Christopher Metzger assembles just the right look for everyone.
Little Gem premiered at the 2008 Dublin Fringe Festival where it won a new writing award and was nominated for Best New Play at the Irish Times New Theatre Awards. Murphy based it on her interactions with patients at a Dublin women’s clinic and it crackles with earthy authenticity.
Presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre, this first new New York City revival of Little Gem which premiered here in 2010 proves it to be an engrossing slice of life that’s immaculately presented.
Little Gem (through September 1, 2019)
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: 100 minutes without an intermission