Jack Quinn

Victor Gluck

Chip Deffaa

The Prophet of Monto
By: Deirdre Donovan
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Laoisa Sexton and Michael Mellamphy Photo by Dan Brick

If you suddenly hear more New Yorkers speaking with a brogue, chances are they have just left the Flea Theater, where John Paul Murphy’s The Prophet of Monto is running through September 25th. Murphy’s comic drama of love, lust, and lost dreams is part of the 1st Irish 2010 Festival. Through October 4th, 16 plays will be featured by mostly contemporary living Irish playwrights at various New York venues.

Murphy’s two-hander is a genuine Irish invention, leaning heavily on the Celtic storytelling tradition. Set in Dublin, it is the story of twin brothers Liam and Larry and their relationship with the spirited Zoe. Liam is off-stage for the entire show; and Larry (Michael Mellamphy) and Zoe (Laoisa Sexton) are the evening’s alternating raconteurs, both working-class folk in their early 30s.

Speaking through the fourth wall, Larry and Zoe recount some crucial episodes from their rather bleak lives and confide their hopes and dreams to the audience. Larry, the more sensible and down-to-earth one, tells us in his opening monologue about the terrible danger of fixing things in life. His personal observations have taught him that it’s better to let things take their course, and not to overly interfere with life’s complications. Without any detailed explanation or smooth-talking transition, he bluntly refers to the death of a Dubliner named Kenny and the fact that he has a not-too-smart twin brother Liam. The other character here is Zoe, Liam’s pretty ex-girlfriend and notorious flirt. She provides a very different perspective to the events described by Larry during the evening. A quasi-prophet, she meticulously dissects and analyzes each situation as if she could see into people’s intimate lives and futures.

Listening to this yarn is highly entertaining. It makes you feel as if you have been button-holed by its 2 Dubliners, who won’t let you go until they have delivered their strange and unsettling story in toto. The topic of their back-to-back monologues shifts from Zoe’s romantic relationship with Liam, her later unfaithfulness to him, and finally the vicious and violent death of Kenny. The play is structured like an informal debate, with Larry and Zoe speaking, in turns, about the thorny issues surrounding love and how lust can easily trip one up and destroy a relationship. The effect of listening to this pair is much like the experience of gazing through a bifocal lens, in which 2 perspectives of life gradually emerge and come into focus.

Under Des Kennedy’s versatile direction, the production skims along humorously for the first hour, and then lags a bit through the later scenes. No doubt the acting is the real ace of the production. Michael Mellamphy, as Larry, embodies the wonder, sadness, hope, and fury of his working-class character. And Laoisa Sexton, as Zoe, rightly smolders as the ex-girlfriend and faux prophet.

In many ways The Prophet of Monto is only a ragbag of bright scraps. Murphy never bothers his head about formal continuity, logic or transition; he keeps his characters’ monologues going according to impulse. But he does have a good instinct for the stage: a sense of time, a sense of dramatic architecture, a sense of motion and emphasis. (If you are sitting in the front row, you can expect the actors to be right in-your-face, stressing their vital points.) And it works like a charm. Larry’s and Zoe’s alternating speeches flow along in a stream-of-consciousness style and gradually fuse into a whole conceit. Although the characters only intermittently acknowledge each other’s presence during the evening, their monologues meaningfully intersect and reinforce the play’s central themes of love, lust, and lost dreams. What’s more, they remarkably create an impression of natural hope in a grim, fatally wrong-headed world.

Zoe and Larry are not highly cultivated, but ultimately they have a good instinct for knowing where they are and what matters most. This drama acquaints you with the darker side of the human heart, and the courage it takes to face the truth of one’s life.

To be sure, this Irish festival reminds us that our theater needs to be nourished from experience that cannot be acquired in New York. Murphy has not fabricated his play based on events in our metropolitan area. Obviously, he has lived in Dublin and in the company of people like the characters in his play. Though its craftsmanship might falter in places, and this one-act play would certainly improve with a bit of trimming (or an intermission), The Prophet of Monto gets beneath your skin. The author, by putting his imagination to work, gives us characters we can care about.

At the Flea Theater, 41 White Street (between Church and Broadway).

The Prophet of Monto will play the following schedule: September 8, 9, 10, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 at 9:00 pm; September 18 and 25 at 1:00 pm.
Tickets are $18 and are available by calling OvationTix at 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.theflea.org . For further information, visit http://www.1stIrish.org

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