Like any Irish play worth its hops and starch, Bernard Farrell's comedy Kevin's Bedhas all the necessary ingredients: colorful characters spewing blarney, a bit of drinking and singing, and the appropriate dash of poignancy.
But as Irish as Farrell's play might seem on the surface, and as beloved as he may be to Irish audiences, he's yet to catch fire in the United States, a country that usually adores playwrights from the Emerald Isle. Compared with contemporaries Brian Friel (Molly Sweeney, Dancing at Lughnasa) and newcomer Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane), for example, Farrell is relatively unknown here. Before this American premiere at the Laguna Playhouse, Farrell's only local production was at South Coast Repertory nearly 20 years ago.
So the occasion of a Farrell play in Southern California is a perfect opportunity to examine his relative anonymity. And the expert, scholarly explanation? No bloody idea. Farrell may not write big, moody, epic Irish plays filled with densely lyrical passages and dark ghosts lurking in the shadows, but if Kevin's Bedis any indication, he does write funny, accessible and very entertaining plays.
The title may conjure up images of a risqué sex farce, but Kevin's Bedis actually a well-mannered comedy. The first act is set on the occasion of a couple's 25th wedding anniversary, a celebration derailed by the appearance of their son, Kevin, a young man studying to be a priest in Rome. Kevin is grappling with an obvious spiritual crisis, a dark night of the soul illuminated by the fact that a woman—who Kevin claims is a nun—has followed him from Rome to Ireland. The second act is set 25 years later, and everything's radically different. The old homestead outside Dublin, which has been in the family for generations, is now dominated by a shrewish Italian woman who has upended everything in a Tory's nightmare of European homogenization. The pastoral view from the kitchen, once peach and apple trees, has been replaced by a brick wall. The quaint Irish feel of the kitchen is now sleek and stylish. And Kevin is a fortysomething nebbish dealing with all kinds of shit he never dreamed would befall him.
The clash between old and new, along with an intriguing array of lies, half-truths and secrets, gives needed weight to the proceedings and allows the audience to overlook the play's biggest problem: Kevin is a terrible lead character. He is constantly in reactive mode and doesn't seem to deserve any of the attention everyone else lavishes upon him. He's a zero, and little in Patrick Lawlor's performance makes Kevin feel anything other than wishy-washy.
Fortunately, the rest of the performances in this mostly solid production, directed by Andrew Barnicle, are sharp. Geraldine Hughes' multilayered Betty; Redmond M. Gleeson's salty patriarch, Dan; and David Whalen's painfully flawed John are merely the highlights of an excellent ensemble effort that turns this show into a quite charming event.
By the time Kevin's Bed finishes, you find yourself almost wishing for a third act, just because these characters feel so familiar. And while it doesn't make you want to take to the streets in armed support of the Easter Rebellion of 1916 or solidify your belief that the Irish are the finest writers in the English language ever, it's still a fine way to spend two and a half hours. Which, when all is said and done, might be the most commendable feat of all.
Kevin's Bed at the Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theater, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through May 14. $31-$40.