Séamus Scanlon's The McGowan Trilogy: A Serial in Three Acts embodies the best things about New York City's annual 1st Irish theater festival. The play’s run at The Cell, which bills itself as a twenty-first century salon incubating new works of art, offers a chance to witness the work of a rising talent in Irish drama in an intimate venue. McGowan's assemblage of three one-act plays creates a satisfying arc centered on the title character, Victor M. McGowan, an I.R.A. soldier and killer played by Paul Nugent, who originated the role in 2012. In the published version of the play, Nugent describes his character as maybe having "a genuine soul under all that devilish sneering bravado," and he succeeds in bringing those emotional nuances out over the course of the evening.
McGowan can perhaps be compared to a more literate and, at times, self-aware version of Martin McDonagh’s eponymous Lieutenant of Inishmore, Padraic. Indeed, the first play, Dancing at Lunacy, in which a possible traitor to the cause is confronted in a 1980s Belfast drinking club, wouldn’t be out of place in McDonagh’s oeuvre, and heavily echoes Reservoir Dogs as well, with Nugent in place of Michael Madsen and some Grace Jones in place of "Stuck in the Middle with You." Conor McIntyre is fantastic here as the barman and nephew of an IRA commander whom Victor sees as incompetent; despite being confused and intimidated, he is eventually drawn into the violence merely through being in the wrong place and having the wrong family, and his “I feel I should do something” could be giving voice to many in the Troubles.
The allusive quality of the first act gains effectiveness as the second and third acts depart from rather than extend its clear-cut politics of betrayal, which heightens the divergences of Victor’s character. While McGowan is all quips and mood swings in the opening section, the play interweaves glimpses of that genuine soul as it progresses. The assured, rebellious, cold McGowan becomes less so in The Long Wet Grass. Anna Nugent plays Victor’s unnamed childhood-sweetheart-that-never-was, who ends up in the woods at night via the trunk of Victor’s car after giving a drink of water and some comfort to a dying British soldier. Music, dancing, and the convoluted “rules” of being Irish in Belfast are repeated from the first act, but are more complex, as is Victor himself. The considerations of memory and the past carry over into the final section, Boys Swam Before Me, which finds Victor, whose I.R.A. star is falling rapidly, visiting the McGowan matriarch, May, in her nursing home bedroom. Cindy Boyle plays the complicatedly simple May, trapped in an ever-repeating past that helped to create the murderous son whom she no longer recognizes; but even she, senile and in institutional care, can't escape the consequences of the political situation in a divided Ireland or the intersections of the personal and political that Victor embodies.
McGowan projects images onto moving screens over the acting space to help suggest setting -- one for the first act, then a second, and then a third. By the end, the overlapping, angular screens look fractured and leave a hole in middle. They offer a visual metaphor for Victor and the Irish in the way that his mother offers a verbal one. When she says that he has kuru, a disease caused by cannibalism, he tells her that she is wrong, as he is vegan, but she has, in her rambling, hit on a truth: almost all of the characters are infected. Theirs is a society (and a family) that eats its own, repeatedly. Séamus Scanlon shows himself a playwright to watch, and The McGowan Trilogy is a must-see for fans of contemporary Irish drama that will resonate for any audience steeped in the violence, contradictions, and complexities of the modern world. - Leah Richards and John Ziegler
Dr. Richards is an English professor in NYC, and spends her free time raising three cats and smashing the patriarchy.
When not writing reviews, Dr. Ziegler spends a lot of his time being an Assistant Professor of English in NYC and playing guitar in a death metal band.