The Public Theater, LuEsther Hall
425 Lafayette St. by Astor Pl.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 29, $85
Stephen Rea is riveting as a bigot who snaps in David Ireland’s incendiary, darkest of dark comedies, Cyprus Avenue. A coproduction of the Abbey Theatre and the Royal Court Theatre running at the Public through July 29, the play is a difficult one to recommend; it’s a testament to the audience’s psychological pain threshold that, the night I saw it, no one left LuEsther Hall during the show’s brutal one hundred intermissionless minutes. Rea is Eric Miller, a Belfast Loyalist who is undergoing treatment with a counselor, Bridget (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo), in an unidentified facility. He is a prickly, uncomfortable, precise man who can no longer find his place in a society that has passed him by. “Everything is upside down. Nothing is what it claims to be,” he says. “Chaos is majesty. Love is degradation. And the world has become a travesty.” He calmly calls Bridget, who is black, the n-word, then gets supremely insulted when she assumes he is Irish. “The last thing I am is Irish,” he declares. “I am anything but Irish. I am British. I am exclusively and non-negotiably British. I am not nor never have been nor never will be Irish.”
As they continue their talk, the narrative cuts to flashbacks, revealing what Eric did that led to his current situation. It all started when his daughter, Julie (Amy Molloy), had a baby that he refused to say anything nice about. “What is wrong with you?” his wife, Bernie (Andrea Irvine), asks incredulously. He calls Julie the c-word, then complains about his sad past: “Resentments. Disappointments. Failed expectations. Ruined dreams. Entanglements. Despair. That which could have been. And that which is.” The trouble reaches a new level once Eric decides that the newborn not only looks like but actually is Gerry Adams, the longtime head of the Sinn Féin, the controversial left-wing Irish republican political party. He shares his dislike of Catholics, who comprise the Sinn Féin, with Bridget, referring to them in derogatory terms. But Eric really breaks when he hires a mysterious balaclava-clad man named Slim (Chris Corrigan) to carry out a heinous plot.
Directed by Vicky Featherstone, who helmed the 2016 original — which also featured Rea, Molloy, and Corrigan — Cyprus Avenue is meant to shock, and it does. As Belfast native Van Morrison sings in his gorgeous 1968 song of the same name, “And my inside shakes just like a leaf on a tree.” The audience sits on either horizontal side of the stage, the action happening in between on Lizzie Clachan’s relatively spare set. So when something particularly frightful occurs, you can see people on the other side cover their mouths in horror just as you do the same. Ireland (Everything Between Us, What the Animals Say) and Featherstone (Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, Victory Condition) hold nothing back as Eric, seemingly in total control, calmly goes about his business in a way that is terrifying; Cyprus Avenue is not quite as farfetched as you might first imagine, particularly here in America, where hatred, misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, and harsh partisanship seem so commonplace today that individuals are snapping all the time. However, most of us don’t get to see that enacted, even if fictionally, at such close quarters. But what we do get to see right in front of us is a spectacular performance by Oscar and Tony nominee Rea (The Crying Game, Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me), who has previously shown a fondness for blood and violence on the New York stage in Sam Shepard’s A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) at the Signature in 2014. Rea moves slowly throughout, carefully monitoring each step and every breath, completely at a loss to thoroughly understand what he is doing. “I don’t know anything anymore,” he tells Bridget. And it’s meant to be scary that he’s not the only who feels that way.