Rough Magic is a stalwart of the Irish theatre scene, and in the world premiere of Jezebel, it continues an impressive record in nurturing and advancing burgeoning theatre writers and directors through its SEEDS artistic development programme.
Mark Cantan’s professional writing debut is witty and sparkling, a modern ‘comedy of manners’ in the form of a sitcom. The production is intentionally televisual in style and content. Alan (Peter Daly) and Robin (Niamh McCann), play a modern day couple whose success in the boardroom is underscored by gradual boredom in the bedroom. Alan is a fretting, neurotic statistician, dominated by his empowered and career oriented girlfriend Robin, and after just six months their sex life is predictably stagnant.
What follows is a humorous account of their attempts to enliven their relationship through an alternating series of vaguely suggested sex games. Eventually Robin, driven to explore new sexual avenues, suggests a threesome, and in a ‘faithful’ meeting in a nightclub they encounter the perpetually single, kooky artist Jezebel. O’Connor’s Jezebel is the opposite of her promiscuous namesake, the ur-adultress of contemporary interpretations of Hebrew scripture, and instead the character provides a fresh faced, awkward charm to the role of the play’s inadvertent temptress.
The following threesome between Alan, Robin and Jezebel results in a predictable series of calamities between the mismatched ‘types’, who are essentially vehicles for the comedy banter and improbable scenarios. References are made throughout to popular 80s television show Three’s Company, and Ciarán O’Melia’s set design is effective in conveying the typical sitcom living-area layout. A sofa, table and two chairs faces the audience, (who provide a meta gesture to the invisible ‘canned laughter’ of the ‘live’ television audience), while a large black frame on the white back wall suggests a TV or cinematic screen. In between scenes, the beep, whirr and pop of a camera flash create ‘freeze frames’, as the lights dim and the scene is ‘reset’, with characters alternating in providing omniscient third person narrations (while out of character) to elucidate the interior monologue of other characters.
The result is slightly odd, with the attempt to concisely frame (in one hour and fifteen minutes) the suspense, confusion and absurdity of the plot within the familiar sitcom format. This is less an exploration of 21st century Ireland, more a (sometimes) hilarious and entertainingly faithful take on a TV comedy. The Ikea sofa, linoleum floor, and Formica table and chairs transcend specificity: they could be from any time in the past few decades, while the stock characters mediate a stereotypical collision between Robin’s forceful business woman and the ditsy artist Jezebel, while Alan rather passively and ineffectively attempts to keep both women apart.
Jimenez’s production, aided by Daly, McCann and O’Connor’s impeccable comic timing, is a light-hearted if slick affair. But the intensifying absurdity impinges on the play’s last act and it disintegrates into chaotic farce. Alan and a pregnant Robin improbably accuse each other of infidelity, and then Jezebel and Robin simultaneously go into labour so that the audience is treated to a barrage of wails and further delays as everyone denies that Alan is the father to both children. Ultimately the play is hamstrung by the difficulty of resolving itself without resorting to hysteria, accusations and confusion.