46 Walker St.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 23, $45
Irish playwright Jaki McCarrick makes her New York debut with the world premiere of The Naturalists, an intimate, involving drama that is having too short a run at Walkerspace, where it continues through September 23. It’s 2010, and brothers Francis Xavier (John Keating) and Billy Sloane (Tim Ruddy) are living together in a cluttered mobile home in a rural hamlet in County Monaghan. Francis is a tall, thin, calm man who engages with nature and tries to give people the benefit of the doubt. Billy is a paunchy, brooding brute who sits around watching soap operas and guzzling beer while spread over the couch, always leaving a mess behind. While Francis carefully takes off his boots and places them outside the door, Billy trudges into the house and kicks them off, spreading around whatever he stepped in. “Do ya not know how to live?” Francis asks. “Don’t do the easy thing. The drink, the telly. And couldn’t we leave the door open for a change and listen to the birds like we used ta? Oh, it’s a beautiful night — and so warm, Billy . . . and the tall trees, the darkness of them against the still bright sky. Aren’t we lucky in Ireland we have the long nights in May? We could be watchin’ somethin’ real, Billy, and not that oul shite.” To which a grumbling Billy replies, “What I want to be watchin’ the trees for? What am I? A bird? Haven’t we fecked our lives away on them long enough? I have anyway.”
Weary of the stasis and mess of two bachelors living together, Francis hires a part-time housekeeper, young Josie Larmer (Sarah Street), an airy, Honda 50-riding vegan who needs to make some money and doesn’t mind looking after the brothers, whose mother disappeared long ago. Francis is virtually obsessed with the natural world, and slowly it becomes clear why — a former IRA member, he spent twelve years in prison for having masterminded the 1979 Narrow Water bombing, which killed eighteen British soldiers. (Although the characters in the play are fictional, the bombing was real, but the perpetrators were never identified. Coincidentally, there was an attack on the Narrow Water memorial just this past weekend that is being treated by police as a hate crime.) Both Francis and Billy take a liking to Josie, who doesn’t mind the attention, but when an old IRA compatriot of Francis’s, John-Joe Doherty (Michael Mellamphy), aka Joey the Lip, unexpectedly shows up, the past threatens to overwhelm and destroy both Sloane brothers.
A presentation of the Pond Theatre Company, The Naturalists is warmly directed by Pond cofounders Colleen Clinton and Lily Dorment. (Street is the third cofounder; Clinton and Dorment have acted in the company’s previous shows, 2016’s Abigail’s Party and 2017’s Muswell Hill.) Chika Shimizu’s inviting set is wide open; a few scenes even take place on the floor, only a few feet away from the audience, as if everyone in the theater is taking part. It might be 2010, but the brothers seem trapped in time. They have an old TV console, a ratty record player with LPs strewn about, and no microwave. Cellphones are nowhere to be seen; it’s as if they are lost in Henry David Thoreau’s legacy. Music is integral to the show; while songs by Tom Waits play a major role, particularly “Martha,” Steely Dan’s “Josie” is a bit too obvious. All four actors are excellent, but Keating, whose long credits include many works at the Irish Rep, TFANA, and Irish Arts, is a standout; he gives a sweet, gentle humanity to Francis, who is essentially a mass murderer, yet we genuinely feel for him. There are minor structural issues, but those are mere quibbles; McCarrick’s (em>Belfast Girls, Leopoldville) play deals with ideas of atonement and solace in delicate, graceful ways, with a sly touch of trademark Irish black humor that seems as inescapable as that country’s troubled past.