Manhattan Whispers/ Mission
Theatre Upstairs, Lanigan’s, Dublin ***/****
As the title Manhattan Whispers suggests, the voices in the first play are almost too modest to detect, composing a sort of J1 travelogue of the city in the late 1990s. Brian Bennett begins as a backpacker with a feverish need to dance (his character says he is not on drugs, but may as well be). Departing a sweltering hostel where names are etched into bunks, he is similarly keen to make a mark on the city, intoxicated by its bullishness, then cowed by its immensity.
Liana O’Cleirigh follows as a young woman in a subway, distracted, mildly paranoid and dissolving in sweat (she doesn’t say she’s on drugs, but may as well be). Then Shaun Dunne’s young runaway seems both awed and jaded, dizzied by street signs, serial codes and telephone numbers. (“Numbers. I’m sick of f**king numbers.”) Duggan’s writing, his glimpses of city surface and character psychology, is richly evocative and vivid throughout. But the mood, the mode, the disconnection, all suggest a writing exercise, which – even with additional material – cannot be greatly expanded.
Mission is more accomplished. Again exploiting an impressively intact subway-station set, where trains are summoned with fluorescent flashes and a rumbling sound design by Karl Shiels, Andy Cummins and Laura Honan, Duggan’s play brings a menacing absurdity to an initially innocent encounter between O’Cleirigh’s Bronx commuter and Bennett and Dunne’s giddy out-of-towners searching for a drum’n’bass club.
One part Pinter to two parts Neil LaBute (“We’re all just killing time here, waiting for the train,” says Bennett, introducing a twist of Beckett), it’s a combination that combines dark suggestions with careful social detail. Under Duggan’s deft direction (his first outing), the three performers are uncommonly alive to race, religion and class tension in the US, the melting pot where nothing melted.
Another eye might have advised cutting the last lines to finish on a moment of thrilling ambiguity. Together, though, the pieces feel more nostalgic in substance and form, like a writer’s sketchbook or the formative effect of New York, both of which are hard to leave behind.