The Irish Problem

Photo by Ed Krieger/
Laguna PlayhouseRemember those wacky 1990s, when America's economy took a huge, ungainly leap thanks to fairytale Internet funds? When people previously unaccustomed to wealth spent the rest of the decade awash in conspicuous consumption? When it all crashed and burned like so many unsafe-at-any-speed SUVs? Well, it happened in Ireland, too (except that the conspicuous consumption was more like conspicuous alcohol consumption, of course), and in this Laguna Playhouse production of Bernard Farrell's Stella By Starlight, one Irish dad takes a harsh economic downturn right in his severance package.

Dermot's been out of work for two years, but with a large “redundancy” (that's Irish for “downsized”) settlement, he has moved his wife, Stella, and daughter, Tara, out to the Irish countryside. Grieving the loss of the job that defined him, Dermot compulsively reads his e-mail, endlessly remodels his old house, and concentrates on a new career as a raging control freak. He tramples kind-hearted Stella (who's getting migraines and sucking up too much vodka) and aggressively interferes with Tara's dating choices, devoting the rest of his time to peering through telescopes at other planets, unconsciously absorbing himself in something bigger and better than what he's got now.

When old work buddies Paul and Geraldine pop in for a party, it's an evening steeped in loneliness and isolation, a portrait of a man cracking under too much free time—and a man desperate to convince himself that the lifestyle changes he's made weren't as impulsive or stupid as he knows they were.

After his impeccable staging of American Buffalo last year, director Andrew Barnicle scores another winner with this American premiere—and he's a whiz with the subtext. As the couples watch a comet crash into Jupiter's surface, this neat metaphor for Stella's besiegement by the selfish people in her life—as well as the impending bust set to follow the boom—rings out loud and clear.

Starlight is a distinctly Irish spin on keeping up with the Joneses, but the play becomes something more than a know-your-place warning to the disenfranchised, thanks largely to playwright Farrell's loving handling of his characters. Despite their pretentious self-delusion, Farrell treats them without a trace of contempt, an admirable attitude echoed by this Laguna Playhouse production. While the gifted ensemble isn't as tight as it should be (on opening night, several actors dropped cues or tripped over appreciative laughter), the performances were crisp and—more important—honest. The wall between their nonchalant cruelties and our own disappears because we recognize ourselves on the stage.

Stella By Starlight at Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS. Opens Sun. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 N 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 N 7 p.m. Through March 17. $38-$45.

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