Next Theatre Company. By Kirsten Greenidge. Directed by Damon Kiely. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 10mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Aeneas Sagar Hemphill
In Kirsten Greenidge's 2013 work, the Taylors, a black family living in a predominantly white neigborhood in Boston, find that the Irish family who "ghost-bought" their home for their grandparents in the late 1950s wants to take it back. In that time, the law explicitly barred non-whites from particular neighborhoods. So the Donovans, in financial desperation with six children to care for, made a deal to put their name on the title for a fee so the Taylors can move into their dream home. The problem is, it's not only a dream home for the Taylors: a sense of injustice and entitlement on the part of Mrs. Donovan (portrayed in different eras by Cora Vander Broek and Margaret Kusterman) complicates the deal and breeds resentment that carries over two generations.
One will likely find similarities to Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park, at least conceptually. Both put the American Dream on the spot in all its ironies and limitations; both put two moments in history side-by-side and demonstrate how little has changed. And both do this through the lens of home ownership as a signifier of progress. Luck of the Irish, however, differs somewhat in its approach. The fact that both couples come from immigrant groups initially allied in their shared oppression adds an intriguing dimension, even if this connection rarely comes up in the play explicitly. Rather, it's illustrated in the families' struggle to fulfill their competing dreams, and their grandchildren's struggle to hold onto that dream in the face of still-present prejudice and ostracization.
Structurally, Luck of the Irish integrates its past and present, alternating and overlapping throughout, though the effect is slightly dulled by the ambling transitions in Damon Kiely's Next Theatre Company production. Jacqueline and Richard Penrod's set is a serviceably realistic depiction of the house-in-question (the porch of it, anyway), but I wonder if the play's world would have been better served with a more stripped down and flexible environment. The actors seem cramped and their blocking limited, diminishing the potential for visual storytelling.
The biggest problems still seem to be with the material itself. Greenidge's play is very clever and brings up a number of important issues; it just has a few too many structural and logistical shortcomings to ignore. The title issue, for one, feels needlessly stretched out. It would likely have been better resolved with lawyers, but instead Hanna (Lily Mojekwu) decides to search for the missing document on her own. It's not this we see, but her arguments with her younger sister Nessa (Lucy Sandy) about her life choices and husband Rich (Austin Talley) about how to handle their son Miles (Mesiyah Oduro-Kwarten), who has just been suspended for biting a child at school. These scenes are well-acted and Greenidge's wit is on full display, but it becomes increasingly clear that they serve more as exposition and character development than anything else.
The play mainly relies on the past storyline to move the story along. It's also the only place where Mrs. Donovan, the real antagonist, is developed. Despite the skill of the actresses who portray her past and present, she feels underwritten. Angry, vindictive, and obsessive, our only clue to her motivations is in her repeated complaints that her daughters have to “share rooms.” Perhaps she is meant to be the embodiment of the "smell of entitlement" to which Rich refers, but we aren't given enough of a window into her mind to justify the believability of a 50-year grudge. Instead, she feels simply unsympathetic, making the final confrontation between the two families more pathetic than climactic.