A Short Wake
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
September 10, 2009
There is so much to write home about in Derek Murphy's beautifully drawn dark comedy, A Short Wake, one of a series of plays in the 1st Irish 2009, a five-week festival of Irish Theatre: the bitter, yet funny, spitfire dialog; the compact structure of Murphy's script; the polished cast, the excellent direction, and the support of a talented design team.
The story revolves around two estranged brothers, haunted by a dysfunctional upbringing, who meet after a ten-year hiatus at their father's wake in New York. Teddy, the older brother, arrives first. Scratching out a sketchy career in gambling, he spent time in prison and keeps his comforts close to the hip: two silver flasks and a handgun. Jimmy, a California lawyer who has watched the funeral parlor for two hours from a coffee shop across the street, reluctantly arrives and refuses to even shake his brother's hand. This relationship has a long way to go, and it is a privilege to watch it subtly unfold.
Peter Bradbury (Teddy) and Brandon Williams (Jimmy) capture their emotionally-laden roles superbly. Their timing is pitch-perfect, although their accents—intended to be Irish—come off as Italian. No matter; they are consistent throughout. Each is tentative, aggressive, remote, and needy by turn. Repartee whizzes by fast, especially in the beginning when defenses are at their highest and there is no time for or trust in a shared story. But, gradually this changes, and memory, that tricky figment that sometimes passes for fact and sometimes turns into imagination, emerges into a story that reveals the hurt and a new truth—at least one that may be more bearable than the one the brothers have been carrying around.
Bradbury endows Teddy with confidence and swagger. He gives Teddy that slightly seedy look that comes with a reedy figure, sunken cheeks, slicked dirty-blond hair, and stooped posture. His black shirt and white tie help to stir doubt about his character, but his credibility truly comes into question when he takes deep draws from his flask. Williams plays Jimmy, the successful lawyer, with effective skittishness and resentment. He reveals a familiar stubbornness as he refuses the friendly gestures of his brother. Playwright Murphy skillfully establishes the mistrust between the brothers during the first part of the play, subtly drops pieces of information that force a switch in allegiance, and skillfully finds a resolution that is both credible and satisfying.
Ludovica Villar-Hauser tautly directs with an artful eye and an appreciation for nuance in gesture and pacing. CJ Howard selected heavily draped windows, Oriental rug, four slick side chairs, and a heavy wooden casket with slightly wilted flowers for the funeral parlor. It is just right. Jenny D. Green hits a bull's eye with costumes and props, and Kia Rogers does a fine job with lighting.