In layered monologues fueled by alcohol and disappointment, three Dubliners at different stages of life reveal their stories in “Port Authority.” If this sounds like a recipe for depressing theater, it is not. Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s rich language — delivered in riveting performances by the trio of actors — lifts Writers Theatre’s production of “Port Authority” out of the muck of self-contemplation and into the realm of the universal.
Director William Brown is adept at paring productions down to essentials, using to his advantage the intimate Books on Vernon space in Glencoe. With only a brick wall for a set, “Port Authority” takes the audience from a barroom brawl, to a plane en route to L.A., to a home for retirees with nuns as wardens. Subtle sound cues by Andrew Hansen set the mood, but it is mostly McPherson’s voice as channeled by these skilful actors that transports the audience.
First up is twenty-something Kevin, barely hatched out of his parents’ nest and struggling to find his way with work and with women. It doesn’t help that alcohol misdirects him at nearly every opportunity. Rob Fenton’s fierce portrayal of Kevin is a wonder, his pain palpable, his Irish accent utterly convincing (credit to dialect coach Eva Breneman for her work with all three actors). In a funny riff about how everyone he knows wants to be in a band and how he has to suffer through all of their inferior playing, we see Kevin’s face shift when he hears a demo by the boyfriend of his roommate/crush Claire: the guy is talented, and as much as Kevin would like to play it cool, his jealousy rips him apart.
Next at bat is Dermot, a fortyish one-time car salesman who failed to sell a single car but who unexpectedly lands a dream job. Proving that we can be our own worst enemies, instead of taking advantage of the opportunity, Dermot sabotages himself with alcohol and anger. Dermot may be a failure, but he is also a poet, referring to his anticipation of a business dinner as “a glittering jewel on the top of Friday.” Talented actor John Hoogenakker plays Dermot. At the performance I attended, John Gray subbed for Hoogenakker and proved himself up to the challenge, his sad eyes and hangdog look well suited to the role.
Third in rotation is Joe, an elderly widower who traded excitement for security. Joe learned not to rock the boat — and then pined for not having taken the voyage. “You want a tip?” he asks. “If you have a dream, just forget about it.” Patrick Clear embodies regret in the role.
Even with only one actor speaking at a time, the monologues feel more like dialogues as the characters reenact conversations with others, especially with women, a common thread. And although they all complain that no one listens to them, director Brown shows us that in fact they are sometimes listening to one another, as if contemplating their own future or past selves.
A common denominator among the three is alcohol, so much so that the program quotes statistics on the staggering amounts of alcohol consumed by the average Irish adult. Playwright McPherson knows the problem firsthand. On the night “Port Authority” opened on The West End in February 2001, his pancreas burst, a consequence of his addiction. The program tells us that McPherson hasn’t had a drink since that night. His subsequent sobriety and success supply the upside version of his characters’ despair. There is hope.
Writers Theatre at Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe
Through Feb. 16, 2014
1 hour 40 minutes, no intermission
Tickets $35-$65 at (847) 242-6000 or Writers Theatre