Small Box Psychosis/The Last Crusader

Barry McKinley’s claustrophobic comedies get caught in a tight spot


Small Box Psychosis/
The Last Crusader
TheatreUpstairs, Dublin

“Claustrum,” says one character in the second play

here, savouring the word. Written 20 years apart, the two short plays in this Barry McKinley double bill seem to relish the condition, each depicting a dark claustrophobic fantasy.

Small Box Psychosis , from 1992, is confined to a stalled elevator in New York, while McKinley’s latest, The Last Crusader , never breaks out of an interrogation cell in Russia. Such restriction requires imagination, and you can understand why McKinley, a writer with quirky ideas and a madcap sense of narrative, is so fond of one-liners – it is wit squeezed into cramped spaces.

“I think I busted the regulator,” the lift attendant, Charlie (Finbarr Doyle), tells a nervy lawyer, Mr Schnact (Rory Mullen), and even before Charlie pulls a gun on the guy, things already seem screwy. With some tweaks, this could be a revolution fantasy for the Occupy movement, drawing out the anxiety of subservience and surveillance within McKinley’s play. Charlie, and his drug-addicted, cross-dressing colleague Eddie (Simon Toal) have monitored Schnacht’s failures through the air vents.

But director Sarah Finlay falls into another trap: all gestures become magnified in Laura Honan and Andy Cummins’s neatly designed small box. Toal’s campy southern belle take on the fragile Eddie may be the most confident performance, but the role only works when played utterly straight. It’s hard to invest in unsympathetic characters who believe transvestism is caught from being holed up too often with women. Are these guys smoking crack, I wondered? Then they start smoking crack.

The stakes are slightly higher in The Last Crusade , directed by Karl Shiels and set in 1970s Moscow, where shady Russian military henchmen are hunting down assassin priests intent on bringing down tinpot regimes. No, really. “Nothing is at it seems and nobody is what he appears to be,” instructs Donncha Crowley’s foul-mouthed, wise-cracking priest (or is he?) to Patrick O’Donnell’s irreproachably timid curate (or is he?). Sadly, with only four suspects, a paranoid thriller can only undergo so many twists before breaking apart.

While it’s played enjoyably straight, particularly in a scene-stealing cameo by Tiernan Woods, there’s nothing beneath the hokum and therefore no consequence. This could have been a coherent satire about men of faith and totalitarian regimes, but when henchmen can be undone by “your mama” taunts and Red Russia may be undermined by a PR fiasco, every identity seem chronically confused. It hardly matters, then, if every cross is a double cross. Whoever these characters are, they have nowhere to go.
Until April 13th