Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Project Arts Centre, 'Best Man': A Novel Nanny

Photo: Michael MacSweeney
Project Arts Centre, Dublin
Jul 16-27

My review of Best Man by Carmel Winters coming up just as soon I show remarkable enthusiasm for the free whiskey ...

Oh Ireland, look at where you've ended up: in hellacious heels and screwing the nanny.

There is a history on the Irish stage of our nation's identity, when wrapped up in some grand metaphor, taking the form of a woman. WB Yeats's Cathleen Ni Houlihan preached to an early 20th century colonial Ireland when an old woman called for Irish men to take back her beautiful fields and put strangers out of her house. Kay Keane, the lynching lady in Carmel Winters's new play, seems like an updated play on the metaphor, presenting Ireland as a property-driven sociopath, seductively appealing to immigrants, tempted away from her home values by the prospects of a foreign power, and when it blows up in her face she realises that a price can't be placed on what's truly important. 

That's a very reductive and academic reading but honestly: what else are we take from this apathetic play?

If Winters wants an audience to identify emotionally with a story of an Irish family affected by the material culture of recent years then why choose two individuals so completely removed from the common man? Why care for the wealthy real estate agent Kay or her striving novelist husband Alan, whose voluminous vocabulary seems more like a vehicle for the playwright's pristine pen than anything else? A Bolivian nanny Marta is hired in to help while Alan works on his book (the caring of the children had yet to merit one before this. Have I mentioned that these people are terrible parents?). And as a marriage degenerates a custody war commences. Only problem is: who cares about a bidding war when the bidders themselves don't really seem to? The last scene hastily tries to salvage this but, like most things in the play, the parent-child relationship is a far more complex theme than Winters realises. 

The tragedy seems to be that the children are reduced to property, which would be powerful if their presence wasn't completely absent bar the purely decorative projections of family photographs and the mawkish maneuvering of a stage hand into the role of a daughter. Neither parent role seems to redeem themselves, leaving us wonder who the hell we're supposed to be fighting for in this bitter play. Perhaps that's just Winters's strange and dark humour, which kicks into overdrive in a crass second half that would have you think she's vying for a primetime spot on HBO. 

Ivan Birthistle and Vincent Doherty's musical score suggests a psychological thriller but Best Man isn't as perceptive as that. What's infuriating is the superficiality of the whole exercise, and the casual leaps the playwright makes to get from A to B. As two characters are instantly revealed to be homosexual almost halfway through, as if Judy Garland herself had suddenly swooped in and transformed them with a gay serenade, it feels completely like a cheap plot device, similar with the display of senility in the scene with Marta's father. It leads to perhaps the first explicit woman-to-woman love scene in an Irish play but the circumstances are unfortunate. Much like the fabled victim children of the piece, the complexities of sexuality and mental deterioration are disregarded here and instead are real estate for Winters to further build her sensationalist plot.

The design elements are slick though. And Derbhle Crotty supports the stronger scenes as the devilish Kay, even if she is written into a black hole here. 

But Best Man is a hollow work. Ms. Winters may prove herself to be a woman of letters but her glossy exploits of the disenfranchised are in poor taste. Are we to accept such a blasé portrayal of homosexuality as the Irish gay community are campaigning against inequality on the marriage front? At least the portrayal of the senile man goes to the efforts to show his struggle to be heard, even if tinged by the writer's strive to shock us by the indignity of the situation. But even abortion is thrown in here without any debate, used purely as a cheap blow in one of the play's power struggles. The real portrait of Ireland's economic values is in the figure of the playwright herself, who, like many, has made some really bad investments.

What did everybody else think?


  1. Wow, we really differed in our views. I loved it. I acknowledged its flaws, but I was gripped throughout. Crotty alone was enough to enthrall.

  2. I agree with Darren .... better leave off the whisky when reviewing Chris! Attack with this bile on work and we are wondering what is your agenda?