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    Caraid O'Brien and Mercedes McAndrew in Portia Coughlan. in Portia Coughlan
    Caraid O'Brien and Mercedes McAndrew in "Portia Coughlan."

    Too surly, with love

    "Portia Coughlan" by Irish playwright Marina Carr puts its attractive yet antagonistic title character at the center of a conflict-ridden family in a story that swirls together characters, history, earth and magic.


    Portia Coughlan is bitchy, self-centered, lazy, alcoholic, depressive, destructive, neglectful of her three kids — and desirable to every man in Belmont Valley. She's the heroine, for lack of a clearer word, of Irish playwright Marina Carr's striking play "Portia Coughlan," imported to these shores by the Show World Theater, the former Times Square sex shop turned arthouse.

    Written by: Marina Carr.
    Directed by: Aaron Beall.
    Cast: Mercedes McAndrew, Caraid O'Brien, Joseph Small, Ruth Kulerman, Fergus Loughnane, Kevin Hagan, Paul Obedzinski.
    Show World Theater Complex
    671 Eighth Ave. between 42nd and 43rd
    Previews start: March 7, 2002
    March 14 - April 7, 2002

    Carr uses this amazing character to tell a story in which dark family secrets, the spirit of the earth, and ghosts from the past all haunt the present. Portia herself (Mercedes McAndrew) is haunted by this place in rural Ireland where she grew up, and she seems to haunt it in return — she's invested so much of her spirit in the very earth here that she can't bring herself to leave. When her one-eyed best friend Statia (Caraid O'Brien) suggests a short vacation, she recoils at the idea:

    Oh, I'm sure I'd live through what other folks call holidays but me mind'd be turnin' on the Belmont River. Be wonderin' whether it's flowin' rough or smooth, was the bank mucky or dry, was the salmon beginnin' their rowin' for the sea, was the frogs spawin' the water lilies, had the heron returned, be wonderin' all o' these and a thousand other wonderin's that river washes over me.

    And it's no wonder that she identifies so closely with the Belmont River — her twin brother Gabriel, we learn, drowned in it on their 15th birthday. Now that it's her 30th birthday she's more sullen than ever. Her husband, patient by nature but growing less so by the day, takes a morning break from work to find her drinking at home, drops an obligatory diamond bracelet in her lap and says, "Put that somewhere safe after setting me back five grand," before limping out the door again. It seems like a day when life has reached its breaking point.

    The day will expose shameful secrets from the past, deep-rooted hatreds, offhanded infidelities, and a sense of original sin that some family members believe is at the heart of the family's woes. Portia's grandmother (Ruth Kulerman), still a flame-haired firebrand despite being confined to a wheelchair, makes sure nobody forgets the bad marriages and low-class taint that afflict the clan today, while the others try to shut her up.

    Carr's play does a masterful job of weaving history into the present, the spirit of a place into the spirit of the main character, and wisps of magic into daily life. (Plus one giant chunk of magic at the beginning of the second act, when something thoroughly impossible happens and you just have to go along with it.) The cast handles a motley collection of characters very capably, and McAndrew is particularly good — headstrong, seductive, and sometimes capable of an unholy fury that just about scared me out of my seat.

    MARCH 21, 2002

    Reader comments on Portia Coughlan:

  • [no subject]   from kenneth young, Apr 21, 2005

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