Those who remain critical of the runaway PBS hit "Downton Abbey" now have another exhibit by which to prove their case, courtesy of the Mint Theater Company's production of "Katie Roche." Sumptuous set design, trivial plots disguised in Old World accents and putting the best actors in the smallest roles seems to be the key in keeping the house of Crawley in business. And the people behind "Katie Roche" have painted by almost every number in this staid, best-forgotten drama.
Before we discuss the emperor's naked bits, however, let's point out that everyone should go just to see the phenomenal performance of John O'Creagh. He has only about ten minutes of stage time, and doesn't come in until the third act (before which you'll have to endure two unnecessary intermissions, but at least lubricated by complimentary microshots of whiskey).
O'Creagh is not young and he's not dashing. But he has the sort of talent youth and beauty alone could never equal. According to a Google search, he's been at this for decades but you've probably never heard of him. Whether all that anonymity was worth the ten minutes of turning "Katie Roche" into something artful is a matter between the man and his soul. But it's a favor to all of us, and to the actors he struts and frets all too fleetingly with on stage.
Once O'Creagh appears, a glint and glimmer lights up in everyone, and there's a general lift in the mood of these Irish villagers who have spent the last two and a half hours complaining about the weather.
The December-December courtship dance he has with the equally good Margaret Daly (as an un-thanked spinster in a thankless role) has a return on investment that the playwright, Teresa Deevy, probably didn't even know was there. For all the debates we are used to these days about which sub-group of the human race is most underrepresented in the theater, everybody has one thing in common. They are going to get older, and that's when the industry really loses interest.
The relationship between Daly and O'Creagh features two people bearing the scars of life, and who possess an energy imbued with the fervor and immediacy one feels when you notice that the hourglass is draining. Why Deevy didn't make her whole play about these characters is a bit criminal, and it's almost enough to make one wish she were not having an altogether pleasant time in the afterlife.
If circumstances dictate that audiences will only be permitted ten minutes of pure human drama so that budding studs and starlets can build their resumes, then here's one call in favor of sacrificing all the virgins and starting over again.
Understand, this does not amount to a contract on the careers of Wrenn Schmidt or Jon Fletcher, who play would-be lovers. I know nothing of their private lives, but the actors are credentialed enough to walk past a volcano with little fear. Fletcher in particular has a poise and charisma that should serve him well once his good looks age away.
Schmidt, as Katie, is staunch but hollow, and that's a shame. She would seem to possess the qualities to help her soar in a role like this: the allure, the presence, flashes of impulse. But she never quite brings them all together in the same moment. Schmidt does what's required of the part, but not much else.
She is not helped by the script, an exposition-heavy sheaf of improbabilities, nor by the Mint's artistic director Jonathan Bank, who stages the piece with nothing resembling philosophy or flair. What we're left with is the meandering machinations of a small town moth fluttering against the breeze to become a butterfly. She learns of her true parentage through a device straight out of "Star Wars," and marries a man totally unsuited to her in the process.
As played by Patrick Fitzgerald, though, it's hard to say who or what her husband is exactly suited to. Disturbingly stiff and slow from his first moment, Fitzgerald performs the entire play as though he is under arrest, arms resolutely locked behind his back in a three act perp walk.
His character must be the only man in Ireland named Stanislaus, a Slavic moniker meaning one who has achieved great things. But Fitzgerald's extremely awkward, menacing and imbalanced performance looks like the only thing he'd like to achieve is a blue van and a clown suit.
The marriage, predictably, is a fraught one, punctuated with subplots stolen either from "Othello" (a deviously proffered muffler) or "Three's Company" (hiding from the jealous husband behind a curtain). When the resolution comes, we're left thinking that we could have had more time for that whiskey in the lobby had they simply had this chat hours ago.
Given the vibrant set design by Vicki R. Davis, it's not totally unfair to say the production literally competes with the wallpaper for attention. The visual elements contain the detail, and even the volume, that Bank forgot to put into his end of the equation. The playbill tells us playwright Deevy lost her hearing at an early age, and it would appear that Bank thinks we can read lips too.
Of course, hearing the play would mean having to hear the play. At least "Downton Abbey" throws in a clever line once in a while.
"Katie Roche" runs through March 31 at the Mint Theater Company, 311 West 43rd Street in Manhattan. For tickets and info call 866-811-4111, or visit www.minttheater.org.