DruidMurphy’s Nine-and-a-Half-Hour Irish Theater Marathon: Epic! But Survivable
Saturday, Oct. 20: I’m attending the all-day, nine-and-a-half-hour marathon DruidMurphy, a trio of plays (Conversations on a Homecoming, A Whistle in the Dark, and Famine) by Irish playwright Tom Murphy performed in rep by the Druid Theatre Company at the Eisenhower Theater. I considered seeing the three plays on three weeknights, but parking three times at the Kennedy Center would cost $66; parking once for the marathon is $22, so ... decision made.
We leave the apartment at 12:15 p.m. to make a 1 p.m. curtain, figuring that by taking the scenic route we’ll at least briefly enjoy the perfect fall day we’ve elected to miss almost entirely. A few moments later we’re breathing exhaust fumes on a traffic-jammed, under-construction, less-than-bucolic Rock Creek Parkway, but never mind—barely a 20-minute delay—we’re there in plenty of time for the start of Conversations.
1 p.m.: Gutsy choice, beginning a nine-and-a-half-hour marathon with a pause: Barmaid standing in a 1970s bar, staring at the audience for 30 seconds. Clock ticks loudly. She ignores a loud tapping (on the door? In the kitchen? Who knows?). It’s been almost a minute and nothing’s happened.
1:15 p.m.: Lots of folks on stage now, and Conversations on a Homecoming is revealed to be an intermissionless chatfest with Irish folks downing pints of Guinness and complaining about their lot in life. Cast’s terrific, dialogue’s decently lyrical in a post-Behan-ish way, but lordy, it’s static.
1:50 p.m.: Hubby nudges me (I swear I was just resting my eyes) and I open them to find much is still as it was at the start. Nobody’s happy, everybody’s got a grudge, guy who’s come home from New York City is a phony.
2:58 pm: Conversations ends roughly where it began: empty bar, empty lives. Now, what to do for an hour until Whistle starts? We walk the KenCen grounds, visit the gift shop, see lots of construction debris (looks like they’re reconditioning the air vents), and it’s barely 3:20 p.m. Another 20 minutes gets us to the Watergate and back. Foggy Bottom’s deserted except for the Druid crowd.
4 p.m.: Whistle in the Dark also starts with a pause (must be a point of style). Woman stands staring in her dining room, shards of crockery on the floor, then she sweeps them up. Gets livelier, though. It’s a “fightin’ Irish” play, with Dada shootin’ the blarney and eggin’ (there are no final consonants enunciated on stage) his brawlin’ brood into fightin’ another clan.
5:21 p.m.: Intermission arrives and someone will die, that’s pretty clear. Pretty clear who’ll die, actually, though how is still up in the air. Out in the lobby, the Millennium Stage folks are about to open their free seating, but Whistle’s pretty engaging. We head back in.
6:25 p.m.: Lights dim on Whistle’s final, tragic altercation (someone did die) and apart from that fetish about opening acts with pauses, something else is now clear about Tom Murphy’s writing: He thinks repetition makes short sentences profound. The last lines of this play are repeated over and over as the lights dim—not a great idea as it requires the actors to hold their tragic tableau for the better part of a minute. Now to dinner. We head to a piano bar in the Watergate complex, listen to lounge-y Les Miz and Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes while munching on chicken tacos ($40… so much for saving on parking).
8 p.m.: From feast (as it were) to Famine, which begins with a tragic tableau, then a pause. This one’s set in 1846 as potato blight is forcing more than a million starving Irish to consider emigration to the Americas, and is performed in gathering darkness, which seems kinda cruel as the marathon enters its eighth hour.
9:10 p.m.: Sharp sequence about the politics of famine: church vs. landowners over who gets bragging rights regarding helping the poor wretches in the fields. They’re not actually helping them; they just want the moral high ground.
9:57 p.m.: A scene with electoral resonance: a rich businessman telling an impoverished farmer he’s foolish to expect the government to save his family, that he (the rich guy) is the only one who cares enough to pay their way out of starvation (and out of the country because his idea is basically to outsource the problem of starvation).
10:12 p.m.: Marathon has entered its 10th hour, and director Garry Hynes has just had her actors build a shelter that faces away from the audience, and huddle behind it to play a whole scene out of sight. As the stage is mostly dark, and the accents thick enough that subtitles often seem warranted, this is um ... let’s go with “odd.”
10:33 p.m.: Final fade. Standing ovation. On the way out, my hubby sums up Famine a lot more succinctly than the playwright did: “It’s The Potatoes of Wrath,” he shrugs, and we head for the parking lot.
Photo by Catherine Ashmore