It's no secret that many of the world's greatest English-speaking dramatists have been Irish. The list is almost endless, from Goldsmith, Sheridan, and Congreve through O'Casey, Shaw and Wilde, to Beckett, McDonagh and McPherson. I still have pleasantly sharp memories of the first play I reviewed for Theasy, The Pride of Parnell Street by Sebastian Barry.
I list this panoply in order to provide a context for The Prophet of Monto, the new (and first) play by Dublin writer John Paul Murphy. It seems to me that being an Irish playwright must come with a special burden, an almost impossibly high standard to match. The happy news is that Murphy's play succeeds on its own terms quite well. And if it is slightly reminiscent of the more recent playwrights listed above, so be it.
The Prophet of Monto is a monologue play somewhat in the mode of Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney. (Conor McPherson also uses monologues heavily in his plays, but rarely in direct address to the audience.) Usually I'm a "show me, don't tell me" guy. For instance, I often object to the use of a narrator to give exposition and detail, sparing the author the more difficult task of weaving such information into the action of the play. But for some reason that conviction melts away when a skilled and engaging actor starts talking to me from the stage; which is exactly what happens in The Prophet of Monto. Larry (Michael Mellamphy) strides into a spotlight telling the audience a story, and I am immediately spellbound. Soon Zoe (Laoisa Sexton) joins him and between the two of them I am in aural heaven, their every word adding to the vivid scenario in my head. I don't even mind when I miss things because of their Irish accents; the verbal music more than makes up for it. I'm told the performance lasts 90 minutes, but I never once thought about time.
If the style is peculiarly Irish, so is the story, which is essentially about the eternal conflict between fantasy and reality. Murphy fulfills this tradition with refreshing originality. The twist in Monto is that Larry and Zoe do interact sporadically, making their relationship tantalizingly ambiguous. They are both telling the story of Liam, Larry's "half twin" and Zoe's sometime boyfriend. Liam is a sort of soft-in-the-head saint, while Larry and Zoe are fully planted in the "real world" of grim, post boom-time Dublin. Zoe is also psychic — the titular prophet who sees the future, her own and others', with uncanny clarity. The tale is riveting and the ending of the play is the best kind — surprising yet inevitable.
The production is directed simply and stunningly by Des Kennedy, with evocative design work in all departments. The 40-seat downstairs theater at the Flea is the perfect venue for this intimate piece, which is a world premiere from the Washington D.C. company Solas Nua ("new light" in Irish) and part of the third annual First Irish Theatre Festival.
(The Prophet of Monto plays at the Flea Theater, 41 White Street between Church and Broadway, on the following schedule: September 15, 16, 17, 18, 21, 22, 23, 24, and 25 at 9pm; September 18 and 25 at 1pm. Tickets are $18 and are available by calling Ovation Tix at 212-352-3101 or visit theflea.org. For further information, visit 1stIrish.org.)