The subject is respect. "If you haven't earned it when you're alive," jovial undertaker John Plunkett says to a young colleague, "don't be expecting it when you're gone." So begins Dublin Carol, a new three-character play from Irish playwright Conor McPherson getting a warm, loving treatment at the Aurora. It's the bittersweet story of an older man who believes deep down that he's done nothing to earn anyone's respect, and two young people who spend the day before Christmas forcing him to reexamine everything from his behavior to his relationships.
In one sense, not much happens; in another, everything does. McPherson, who also wrote the Aurora hit The Weir, loves to hear other people's stories, and that's clear from this play. There's a lot of storytelling and not much action; the whole play is set within one office and one afternoon. Balancing bitterness and a world-weary humor, John slowly, engagingly spins out the story of his descent into alcoholism. Gary Armagnac is everyone's favorite uncle as John, with his healthy paunch and disdain for such frivolities as hair dryers and tea; it's hard to believe such a nice man could be the scoundrel he admits to being, but that seems to be McPherson's point. Things happen in our lives that make us less than we want to think of ourselves, and it's a bitch pulling ourselves back up.
Tangential but interesting is the story of Nicholas Pelczar, who plays Mark, a young man John hires to help out while his business partner is in the hospital. It's a story straight out of 42nd Street; the star's foot is injured, and an understudy is rushed in and ends up stealing the show. But it's also Pelczar's surprise breakout at CalShakes last season, where he took script in hand and stepped in for the injured Andy Murray, doing a bravura job as Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well. Apparently it got Pelczar noticed, and now he's been pulled out of the understudy trenches. Here he is the quintessential Everyman with his receding hairline and chin; stiff and twitchy, Mark is really a gentle soul who seems at loose ends. Too polite to cut off his elder, he listens with stifled impatience to John's rambling stories and performs not one but two stellar spit takes, one with a mouthful of milky tea. Pelczar's Mark is completely endearing, from admitting that his flight attendant girlfriend's uniform doesn't do anything for him because "it makes her legs look fat" to trying to keep up with the older man's drinking in the second act.
The second act is where everything starts to fall apart for John, who has been otherwise placid and jovial. We learn more about the dark things hinted at in the first act, things he did when he was a heavier drinker, and we meet a woman from his past, whose exact relationship to him is kept tantalizingly vague for a while. He also delivers some stunningly bad yet funny relationship advice, the sort of thing that had women in the audience gasping in disbelief.
Mary, John's second-act visitor, is nicely played by Holli Hornlien, who manages the emotional extremes without flying off at either end. She has come to tell John that her mother is dying, a piece of information that sends him straight to the bottle. After which the question becomes, will he do the right thing? Can a man who constantly hides behind lies, evasions, and a laughing self-disparagement ("We need to have this fucked up immediately! Let's get idjit boy!") even know what the right thing is? That's McPherson's question, and one director Joy Carlin answers gently and with skill in Aurora's quiet, rosily lit production.
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