All Things Entertaining and Cultural
For a wee brief while, I was Jimmy O’Donnell, paying respects to my great friend and boon companion, one Charlie Lafferty, whose funeral is the occasion for the audience participation play at the Society Hill Playhouse, “Lafferty’s Wake.”
Don’t worry. Not everyone in the audience is pegged for a part, and most of the character assignments are references by which a cast member points at you while speaking about a given character from Charlie’s life in the Donegal village of Ballyslattery.
Even mourners like Jimmy, who have to ad lib, are asked questions that make their responses simple and to the point. Mind you, it’s best to let the professionals who are performing an actual play, and an entertaining one, do the heavy lifting and keep things moving, as directed by Society Hill’s venerable artistic chief, Deen Kogan.
No smart answers or upstaging is required, as the “Lafferty’s” ensemble is about as quick and amiable as you can get. They give their show a rhythm, perhaps a different rhythm for each audiences, so it plays as liltingly and as smoothly as the Irish ditties Daniel Irwin plunks out on a stage right piano.
The point, and wonderfully pleasant, surprise is “Lafferty’s Wake” is a delight. Susan Turlish has written a gentle comic story, filled with enough Irishisms and jokes to be genuinely amusing. Turlish has some obvious lines in her script and does some stereotyping, but it’s all for fun. It’s more Barry Fitzgerald and Cecil Kellaway than some “Saturday Night Live” or other satirical reduction.
Kogan, Turlish, and company are out to provide a good time, and they do. The reason I even mention “surprise” is other shows I’ve seen in “Lafferty’s” genre — “Tony & Tina’s Wedding,” “Bubby’s Funeral,” etc. — try too hard to make you feel as if you’re having a special experience and involve their audiences in ridiculous hijinks that masquerade as humor but is really gratuitous business that you pretend to enjoy rather than really enjoying it.
“Lafferty’s Wake” is an actual play with frequent but no pressuring or embarrassing moments of audience participation. Jimmy O’Donnell, for instance, is asked if Lafferty’s widow, Kathleen, pays her bills on time and how long Lafferty stayed on a vacation to the United States. Two responses, and you’ve moved the piece along unscathed. Most of those “picked on” usually have only to nod assent or raise a glass — oh, there’s are glasses, and bottles — in toast or approval. The greedy undertaker, Johnny Boyle, can laugh with the audience as Kathleen tells how he demanded every pound for Charlie’s funeral in advance, and the audience jeers at his audacity.
Turlish bothered to write a story rather than a framing scenario around which silly comic bits can be built. You learn a lot about Charlie, the Laffertys, and the folks in Ballyslattery. You can stay in your seat and hear the triumphs and travails of being Charlie’s wife or the benefit of being his friend. Turlish puts texture in her narrative, so there’s some real sentiment among among the jabber and the fluff. When Mark Knight appears to reminisce and philosophize elegiacally as the late Lafferty, his marvelous voice and heartfelt readings actually turn “Lafferty’s Wake” lyrical and give it moments of admirable beauty. Turlish and Kogan are not just providing a theatrical activity. They are crafting a story and putting on a complete play.
Of course, it’s middle of the road. Deen Kogan made her reputation by producing the plays that were avant garde in the ’60s. I saw my first Genet, Beckett, Ionesco, Friel, Kopit, and Albee, thanks to Kogan, at the Society Hill Playhouse. (I even met Maeve Binchy there before she turned her hand to best-selling novels and watched Richard Roundtree do “The Great White Hope” before he entered trivia annals as filmdom’s Shaft.) Deen learned the value of a commercial success with the long-running production of “Nunsense.”
“Lafferty’s Wake” is miles more in the “Nunsense” mode. I enjoyed it as much as Dan Goggin’s classic because it had the same presentational feeling with less self-consciousness and more warmth. “Lafferty’s Wake” can be ethnic and stereotypical without pandering or offending. It’s good solid fun meant to divert and make for a pleasant outing.
And that is does, boy-o. That is does.
Turlish has all the ingredients for comic conflict. Charlie may have philandered while Kathleen stayed home with their 11 children, all with names that sound like a clan from a Pat O’Brien movie. The eldest child, a daughter, Maggie, is seen comforting and communing with her mother but also showing signs of some mother-daughter tension, some of which is caused by Maggie’s lagabout plumber of a husband, Patrick, who is hail-fellow-well-met with a bottle of Jameson’s to pass around but not exactly the height of ambition or the life of the party Charlie apparently was. A woman from another town is introduced, causing some friction, jealousy, and a brief physical catfight. Charlie’s love of gambling is noted. The wake, with casket and services provided by Johnny Boyle, is held at Rory Finn’s pub which may have been Lafferty’s first home. Jason Eric Klemm, as Finn, serves as the host and primary facilitator of the obsequies. He and Caitlin Catanella as Kathleen keeps things moving smoothly, graciously, and humorously while Jeff Baxt pitches in as the parish priest that has a walloping piece of news for the mourners and the audience regarding Charlie’s imminent burial.
You don’t have to be Irish or Catholic to enjoy Turlish’s humor. She sticks stolidly to the tried-and-true without letting it become clichéd and has a knack for composing her own little witticisms. You welcome the familiar and never feel patronized by it or want to groan at it. Klemm, in particular, is a master at keeping all light and congenial, as any pub owner who knows his business should. Catanella is sharp with her byplay to the audience. I enjoyed playing Jimmy O’Donnell when she called upon me to do it. (Of course, the two Guinnesses I swilled took away any sting from being center stage unrehearsed and without written dialogue.) I would estimate “Lafferty’s Wake” to be 95 percent scripted, with Klemm, Catanella, and Baxt provided most of the ad libbing and doing it deftly, especially Klemm, who knows how to get a devilish thought within his blarney. Baxt, considering he’s playing a priest, Father Pettigrew, can plant a zinger too.
No one is aiming for high art or insight into the human condition. Fun, via light entertainment, is the objective, and fun is created. The entertainment follows it logically. Turlish may not provide deep insights, but she gives her characters traits and touches on common, everyday situations of life with intelligence. Kogan’s cast fits nicely into their characters, and almost everyone called on to make a remark, nod a head, or lead the assembled in “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” does so jauntily and in good spirit. “Lafferty’s Wake,” is, I repeat, a diversion, a straightforward amusement that won’t rouse the intellect or provoke thoughts of the world’s condition but will have you laughing, singing, and enjoying a good time for a couple of hours (two Guinnesses or not).
Jason Eric Klemm is a fine ringmaster. His Rory Finn roosts behind his pub’s bar while the Laffertys and Clancys are talking about Charlie, but he chimes in when he can add to a story and, most important, comes forward when it’s time to change the show’s pace or involve the audience in a game like “Pass the Potato” or a rousing rendition of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” (The participants in the “Potato” game have to supply a bit of merriment for which they receive their side dish for their next dinner.)
Klemm provides the spirit of the show. Rory becomes the host in more ways than one, and Klemm does equally well with his scripted and extemporaneous parts.
Everyone in the cast keeps his or her part of the bargain to act their parts and entertain. With Klemm, Catanella and Baxt engage most and seem the most comfortable with the audience, and with ad libbing. Daniel Irwin and Madison Auch, who do a fine job with their characters as written, rarely venture past the fourth wall to do more than invite the crowd to sing — Irwin generally presides over the piano. — or point of someone say something like, “See, that one agrees with me.” Kelly Boeckle, who plays Charlie’s good ladyfriend, Molly Greaney, also tends to stick to her part, which is the catalyst for the tensest situation in “Lafferty’s.”
Auch and Boeckle move the action forward. Auch makes you like Maggie and be interested in the few plot lines that concern her. Boeckle’s entrance renews energy that wasn’t flagging so much as staying constant. Her Molly gives “Lafferty’s” a needed new wrinkle, and Boeckle takes the stage with gusto while also showing Molly is bit more stylish and sophisticated than the folks in Ballyslattery.
Irwin serves well as the Lafferty son-in-law, Patrick Clancy. He is often the foil of Catanella’s Kathleen, who doesn’t necessarily disapprove of Patrick but, like many of mother, thinks her Maggie might have done better.
I enjoyed Catanella’s energy and spirit. As Jimmy O’Donnell, I had to interact with Catanella a few times, and she made it plain what she needed, so I never felt on the spot, and took whatever response I gave and ran with it. She also had fun bedeviling a woman on the first row she enlisted as her friend, Eileen, who never has to say anything but is called upon for a lot of confirmation about stories from Kathleen’s life.
Mark Knight takes an also Shakespearean approach to his appearances as Charlie Lafferty. The festive atmosphere in the Society Hill Red Room calms into silence and Knight, in beautiful accent and sweetly quiet pacing, tells Charlie’s thoughts, memories, and wishes. Knight can speak of a dog race and make it seem important and life-changing.
Turlish was smart in adding Charlie to the play. Knight elevates a good idea to brilliance with his truly impressive readings and the pensive mood he creates out of raw, unadulterated fun.
Tina Marie Heinze wisely sticks to basics in dressing the “Lafferty’s” cast. No set designer is listed, but the simplicity of the playing spaces and efficiency oi prop placement helps move the show along.
“Lafferty’s Wake” runs through Sunday, December 20, at the Society Hill Playhouse, 507 S. 8th Street (8th just north of South Street), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $35 and can be obtained by calling 215-923-0210 or by visiting www.societyhillplayhouse.org. A full bar is available for each show. Beer is $5 a bottle, and SHP offers a selection. Mixed drinks are more. Water and soft drinks are less. (“Lafferty’s has an Irish setting; almost every table had some libation to use for toasts and to make a good time a little grander.)