“What’s happening?” — the Boy
“It’s a bloody murder picture. My house gets saved from the bomb and then we are told to get out by Top Dog’s enemies. The whole place is informing on each other, loyal sons of Ulster my arse…me and Lillian are destitute, that’s what is happening out there…Jesus, all I want is a roof and four walls…it’s not like I am asking for the moon.” — Bella
Take a boozing, filthy, middle-aged tramp, a teenage boy hiding from paramilitary assassins, an aging prostitute, and a scrappy transvestite and throw them together in a derelict house on the fringes of a Loyalist (Protestant) estate in inner city Belfast and you can’t miss creating drama, comedy, and possibly tragedy. You don’t miss much, at any rate, if you are Marie Jones, the playwright who scored big time with “Stones in His Pockets” in London and on Broadway. With “Rock Doves,” Jones weaves another good yarn, under (again) the keen direction of her husband, Ian McElhinney. Although fueled by a series of somewhat far-fetched coincidences and incidents, “Rock Doves” nevertheless relies heavily on our curiosity about its four marginal people, each of whom is given a stunning reality by the four excellent actors.
Jones has set her play in the present. These are post ceasefire times. But the characters’ conflicts are fueled by the often nefarious activities of the various Ulster-based paramilitaries who have been unable to decommission their arms and seek to maintain their influence and control through (as Jones states in her director’s notes) “the drug trade, prostitution, protectionism, and intimidation.”
The unnamed 18-year-old boy (Johnny Hopkins) thinks he has found a safe haven in a room on an upper floor of the house where we can hear the sounds of nesting rock doves on the roof. (Trivia: American and British ornithologists unions renamed the species rock pigeons in 2004.) The smashed windows have been boarded up in designer Charlie Corcoran’s evocative set. The only furnishings are a single mattress on the floor, a well-worn easy chair, a crate, an armoire, and a TV set with no wires or plug. The mottled walls are as much the victim of a coat of hideous blue paint as they are the result of neglect and “the troubles.”
It isn’t a happy scene when the fearful belligerent boy finds out that he won’t be alone or able to get rid of Knacker (Marty Maguire), the smelly, unwelcoming squatter who calls his bottle of sherry “my wife.” Knacker is as disagreeable as he is prone, as the boy learns soon enough, to violent temper tantrums. Knacker doubts and challenges the boy’s story. For sheer lunacy, however, he spends a good deal of time pretending to be watching re-runs on the broken TV.
Fearing that the controlled explosion in the street might put her own dwelling in harm’s way, Bella (Natalie Brown) comes upstairs along with her brother, Lillian (Tim Ruddy). Lillian is a most unlikely transvestite, tough-as-nails and without a trace of the feminine, even in drag. It seems that Bella and Knacker have a history and she has helped him find a place to live since he went off the deep end following the death of his wife and son. There is no love lost between the boy and Lillian, who thinks he has seen him before.
Although Bella’s and Lillian’s lives and livelihoods appear to be reliant upon the largesse of a vindictive paramilitary leader, their familial bond is about to be severely tested by a betrayal. Even as Knacker’s empathy for the boy increases, it becomes apparent that he is harboring an informer. And so it goes over the course of two days, as circumstances begin to point to a most startling revelation regarding the boy.
As the Boy, Hopkins, a Dublin native making his New York stage debut, is impressive as the tense, disillusioned young man who wanted to be a soldier but ends up unwittingly as a fugitive. Maguire is terrific as Knacker, a sorrowful man who drowns his grief in alcohol but levels the playing field with a sense of humor: “I’ve always bin a bit of nut, and now I am a fully fledged nut, a card carrying member of the nutteriety.”
Ruddy’s unlikely image of a transvestite is like nothing you’ve seen before, and that includes his pathetic get-up as Tina Turner. Brown is equally affecting as the sadly compromised Bella, whose instinct to survive is as strong as her instinct to protect. There is an earthy, wit-filled candor to Jones’ writing, and her characters are vividly drawn. Despite depicting lives in upheaval, disarray, and despair, “Rock Doves” somehow brings a renewed resonance to the old theme, survival of the fittest. More importantly, however, this play reminds us of the renewable human spirit that continues to make us care for each other in a world where political changes rarely make things better.
"Rock Doves,” through Sunday, October 28, Donaghy Theater at the Irish Arts Center, 553 West 51st Street between 10th and 11th avenues. $50 and $55. 212-868-4444.