- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Think your life stinks? Cheer up. You could be a woman or an animal in Dublin.

In Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe’s world, they are one and the same and are subjected to all sorts of unspeakable acts in the 90-minute assault drama “Crestfall” as part of a feral, splendidly acted production at Studio Second Stage under the direction of Joy Zinoman.

It is telling that audience members tended to react more viscerally to images of a horse being tortured and a three-eyed dog hounded into perversion by its owner than to graphic descriptions of rape or a baby dripping with blood and gore after a vigilante-style massacre in a pub. But then, “Crestfall” at times is more snuff film than theater, and you find yourself quickly benumbed by its fusillade of violent imagery. Another blow to the cheek — yawn. Some yob’s skin flapping in the breeze because he was smacked with a nail-studded baseball bat? So five minutes ago.

“Crestfall” details a single, bloody day from three women’s points of view, and its shifting perspectives and heady infatuation with wordplay have fostered comparisons to James Joyce — a “Ulysses in Urinetown,” if you will. In passages, Mr. O’Rowe’s language does contain the tumbling sensuality of Joyce — his ecstatic description in “Crestfall” of shooting up heroin nearly has you reaching for the syringe — and the use of alliteration and rhyming slang bubbles with a sense of joy that belies the sordid subject matter.

The often vacant shock value places Mr. O’Rowe firmly in the tradition of such acutely self-aware hipsters as Quentin Tarantino. They both combine a sense of the showman and showoff in their work. They don’t know when to stop and, indeed, promote excess as an art form. Mr. Tarantino, however, often displays an invigoratingly mordant sense of humor, which seems to be lacking in Mr. O’Rowe’s play.

Gallows humor would give texture to “Crestfall,” and one suspects that darkly comic moments lurk within it and perhaps need a theater or a director with stronger Irish sensibilities to bring them out.

The play deals with a day of violence and debasement in a Dublin slum as told by a trio of women, none of whom knows the entire sequence of events. First up is Olive Day (Jennifer Mendenhall, who has an unmitigated blast with the rough curlicues of the language and seems the most capable of celebrating the play’s humor). She’s a cheery sort who dresses up in her “Sunday best” — black patent-leather stiletto boots and matching jacket — to prowl the neighborhood looking for men other than her husband with whom to sleep. She manages a dismal near-coupling with a beer-bellied guy named the Brew but waxes rhapsodic about the boudoir prowess of a pimp named Inchy.

After Olive skips off in search of what we presume will be more empty sex, Alison Ellis (Kimberly Schraf, expertly playing a woman literally worn down to a nub) enters. A patient, exquisitely suffering soul — and the wife of the Brew — Alison fretfully relates how everything fell apart after her young son was kicked in the head by a horse. She prays for her family to become united again, and while the method of unification is brutal and unseemly, you cannot fault the result.

The third monologuist is Tilly McQuarrie (Mari Howells, an extraordinary Welsh actress who originated the role in the New York production), a hooker and heroin addict. Waiting impatiently for a john and a fix, she starts blaming Inchy for her troubles, and her single act of revenge sets into motion a blood fest that would give Sam Peckinpah pause. However, Mr. O’Rowe being a sentimental softy, “Crestfall” has a happy ending, with Tilly getting a second chance at motherhood. Just what the world needs: another junkie mom.

Americans stereotypically admire the Irish for step dancing and a talent with words, whiskey and woolens. You can add vice to the list after witnessing the varieties of carnality and sadistic cruelty — most of which cannot be described in a family newspaper — cooked up by the characters in this play.

..1/2

WHAT: “Crestfall” by Mark O’Rowe

WHERE: Studio Theatre Second Stage, 1501 14th St. NW

WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 12.

TICKETS: $29

PHONE: 202/332-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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