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On Blueberry Hill

Irish playwright Sebastian Barry’s latest play to reach NYC is a tour de force for Niall Buggy and David Ganly as two cellmates who have a complicated relationship.

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David Ganly and Niall Buggy in a scene from Fishamble’s production of Sebastian Barry’s “On Blueberry Hill” (Photo credit: Patrick Redmond)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

In recent years, the Irish have developed a peculiarly indigenous form of theater in which the characters alternate monologues but never address each other. This could almost be called “storytelling theater.” These plays are challenging for the audience in that the listener must put the pieces together and figure out at what point the characters are involved in the same story.

Examples that have been produced in New York are Conor McPherson’s The Lime Tree Bower and Port Authority and Sebastian Barry’s The Pride of Parnell Street. In Brian Friel’s 1979 Faith Healer, revived on Broadway in 2006, the three characters are each given their own act to tell their stories. The latest example to reach our shores is Barry’s On Blueberry Hill now at 59E59 Theaters, in which Fishamble: The New Play Company has recreated its 2017 production seen at the Dublin Theatre Festival.

Irish actors Niall Buggy and David Ganly returning to their original roles play two murderers sharing a cell in Dublin’s Montjoy Jail. The fiftyish PJ (Ganly) and the sixtyish Christy (Buggy) alternate in their tales, eventually becoming one story. One has committed a crime on impulse and can’t even explain why he did it. The other committed a revenge killing, just like one that killed his father when he was a child watching through the front window. Growing up in a suburb of Dublin, PJ tells us he was an only child with a much loved mother. At seminary, he becomes hopelessly infatuated with a younger fellow seminarian “shining with beauty.”

Niall Buggy in a scene from Fishamble’s production of Sebastian Barry’s “On Blueberry Hill” (Photo credit: Patrick Redmond)

Christy who is ten years older and grew up on the other side of Monkstown in a large family became a construction worker. Falling in love with the fabulous Christine to the tune of Fats Domino’s “On Blueberry Hill,” he and Christine marry and have three children. When one of them is murdered, Christy thinks nothing of committing a revenge killing to even the score.

At first we do not entirely know for certain that PJ and Christy share the same space, but eventually the play becomes one of murder, forgiveness and redemption. Aside from the highly poeticized language, the play also uses a great many Irish words that will not be readily known to American listeners (dozer, hurleys, anent, curach, palaver, screw, lag, and the first name Peadar). As Buggy’s accent is working class that is another level of difficulty for non-Irish theatergoers.

While the play will be challenging to many New York theatergoers, the performances by Buggy (Friel’s Aristocrats and Translations) and Ganly (Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West), returning to roles that they have created and played previously under the assured direction of Fishamble’s artistic director Jim Culleton, are superb, so conversational and confessional. However, their matter-of-fact delivery also makes it difficult to know immediately what is important and what is simply background information. Ultimately, the men’s coming to see each other as human beings and care for each other is very moving.

David Ganly in a scene from Fishamble’s production of Sebastian Barry’s “On Blueberry Hill” (Photo credit: Patrick Redmond)

The set design by Sabine Dargent is both minimal and symbolic. Besides the bunk beds as the only piece of furniture, the walls are hung with countless papers that suggests letters that have been sent over many years. Dargent’s costumes are the same for both men, olive green prison garb, that becomes more than just a uniform. Because there is so little scenery, the lighting by Mark Galione becomes another dimension of the play, picking out each man as he begins his monologue, but changing subtly as the two come to be friends over the long haul.  Denis Clohessy’s sound design includes the voice of Irish radio personality Ronan Collins playing the title song, both Christy’s favorites, in the Fats Domino rendition.

While Sebastian Barry is one of Ireland’s leading playwrights and novelists, his work may be unfamiliar to most New York theatergoers. Others may recognize the names of The Steward of Christendom and Our Lady of Sligo as plays that have appeared at Brooklyn Academy of Music and at the Irish Repertory Theatre. His latest, On Blueberry Hill, is not for all theatergoers as it is challenging, subtle and very Irish. However, the play is worth seeing for the tour de force performances of Niall Buggy and David Ganly, both among Ireland’s leading stage stars.

On Blueberry Hill (through February 3, 2019)

Origin’s 1st Irish Festival 2019

Fishamble: The New Play Company

59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 646-892-7999 or visit http://www.59e59.org

Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (575 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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