God Hates the Irish: The Ballad of Armless Johnny
nytheatre.com review by David DelGrosso
March 26, 2005
God Hates the Irish: The Ballad of Armless Johnny follows the travels of its title character, who is the first completely armless son in a line of one-armed men. The story begins when Johnny’s father, Da, decides this is the day for him to hang himself, as all of his male ancestors have done before him, ostensibly for the shame of having a completely armless son. Da is unable to tie a noose with his single arm, so his wife, Ma, obliges and he succeeds in killing himself while Johnny looks on, helpless.
The next step in the family tradition is that the son must cut his father down, just as Johnny’s father did before him. Of course, Johnny is unable to carry out his part in this rite of passage because, well, he has no arms.
These are the jokes, folks.
A pair of corrupt police officers accuse Ma of Da’s death, and in the course of torturing her to get a confession, they kill her and decide to string her up next to Da. Unable to cut either of them down, Johnny decides to travel to America (sure, why not?), but keeps getting lost. He meets a variety of cartoonish characters along his way, almost all of whom wind up getting killed. This happens with such regularity, in fact, that at some point the dramaturgy started to feel more like a video game than an actual play: It is as if the character at hand must be destroyed before Johnny may proceed to the next scene.
Johnny continues to get lost on his odyssey, kills, is castrated, ends up in places like Ethiopia (again, why not? Just going to Ethiopia must be funny, right?), picking up an understanding, two-armed love interest along the way and returns with her to his Irish village and hanging parents. I thought he was headed to America for some reason, but I guess he was just looking for love. Oh, and she kills people, too, so she may be useful to have around in case Johnny needs to get anywhere in the future.
Songs, though well-scored, are lyrically weak and add little to the plot or stakes; they often feel tacked-on, as if they are remainders written for a different piece.
I should note that the producers have assembled a solid cast—a mix of Broadway and off-Broadway regulars plus some very talented relative newcomers making their off-Broadway debuts. Hardworking downtown composer Michael Friedman of the Civilians continues to show his versatility (this is, I believe, at least his third score this season, after All Wear Bowlers and Splatter Pattern). But these artists are stuck in a pointless, unentertaining show.
According to publicity materials, God Hates the Irish: The Ballad of Armless Johnny is supposed to be a “satirical farce that has something to offend just about everyone.” Unfortunately, playwright Sean Cunningham seems to have prioritized offending audiences over delivering effective satire or enjoyable farce. And, to be honest, after a long 2 hours, 10 minutes, and 13 songs, I can’t say that the production even succeeded at offending me. It checks down a thorough list of explicit material—plenty of vulgarity and racist epithets, loads of scatological details, simulated sex, all sorts of violence and cruelty—but this is form without content, a lot of empty shocks thrown at a canvas to see what sticks. There's a difference between being made to feel uncomfortable by a provocative image or idea and being simply turned off by a lot of bad taste. The former can be theatrically compelling, but the latter merely makes for a long, rough night.