Review: 'Rock Doves' at the Irish Arts Center


Special to Newsday

September 17, 2007

"The war's over, son - nobody get word to you?" says a drunken dropout to a doomed teenager in Marie Jones' "Rock Doves." In this despairing new play about contemporary Northern Ireland, it seems that none of the old warriors or their scarred children got the memo that the Troubles have ended. Old habits die hard, especially the deadly ones.

It's a striking departure in tone and form for Jones, the Tony-nominated playwright of "Stones in His Pockets" and "A Night in November" - both ripping yarns with one or two actors bringing whole towns of characters to life and a deft blending of light and dark. "Rock Doves," by contrast, hunkers down in real time with four unhappy souls in a cramped Belfast shack that looks like an ashtray turned upright.

It's the home of several pigeons (the "rock doves" of the title) and of Knacker (Marty Maguire), a hardened derelict who refers to his bottle as his wife and pretends to see reruns on the defunct TV in a corner.

He becomes the unwilling host of a jumpy young hothead (Johnny Hopkins) with a shaved pate and a telltale limp who claims he's a "top ranker" in the local paramilitary organization. "Top wanker?" is Knacker's skeptical reply. He's soon joined by two employees of the same seedy mob: the butch transvestite Lillian (Tim Ruddy) and his sister, Bella (Natalie Brown), who are fleeing a bomb scare.

That there are still bomb scares, kneecappings and sectarian bonfires in Northern Ireland is Jones' point. She wants us to see that Ireland's former militias have morphed into crime syndicates. Apart from delivering this dispiriting news, "Rock Doves" offers few insights about the persistence of evil, except to suggest that the resilience of those who survive it can become something like complicity.

"Rock Doves" is noticeably clumsy with certain key events and revelations. It often functions less like a play than like a story outline interspersed with monologues, some of which are lovely and haunting. Knacker and the Boy, in particular, have some breakthrough moments in the second half, as the young man's intense neediness disarms the crusty old bum. Under director Ian McElhinney, Hopkins and Maguire make these two an affectingly odd, bittersweet couple.

As a world-weary former prostitute, Brown shares some quiet confessions with the Boy, but they don't erupt organically from the action. The same holds true for the spectacle of stiletto-sharp Lillian, who's more of a well-coiled defense mechanism than a fully rounded human being. Each of these characters could inspire a whole play, but here they're shoehorned into one tawdry, zero-sum plot.

There is life after the Troubles, and drama, too, but it will take a better play than "Rock Doves" to do it justice.

ROCK DOVES. By Marie Jones. Directed by Ian McElhinney. Through Oct.28 at the Irish Arts Center, 553 W. 51 St., Manhattan. For tickets, call 212-868-4444. Seen Wednesday.