At the risk of sounding like a broken record, anyone with the slightest doubt about the quality of Los Angeles theater could do no better than to check out Scott Conte, Austin Hébert, Shaun O’Hagan, Joe Pacheco, and Patrick Quinlan in the Andrew Barnicle-directed The Irish Curse, now heading into the final weeks of its justly lauded two-month run at the Odyssey.

 These five superb actors, all but one of whom are new to this reviewer, bring to vivid, hilarious, poignant, three-dimensional life four Brooklynites of Irish ancestry and one new-to-America Irishman, all of whom suffer from the titular affliction. No, it isn’t “the drink,” though as one of them points out, who’s to say that that other Irish curse isn’t the result of the one plaguing our quintet of penilely-challenged heroes.

That’s right. Joseph, Rick, Stephen, Kevin, and Kieran have all gone through life blessed neither with a grower nor with a shower—and suffered the consequences: a broken marriage, infidelity, promiscuity, the priesthood, and a paralyzing fear of sex, reasons that have prompted them to join a support group led by Father Kevin at Brooklyn Heights’ St. Sebastian’s Catholic Church.

 Playwright Martin Casella takes these five very different men (a Southern lawyer, a young man studying sports medicine, a gay NYPD cop, a Catholic priest, and a fresh-from-Dublin roofer) and imagines a support group meeting that proves life-altering for all five, as well as laugh-out-loud funny and shed-a-few-tears touching for Odyssey ticket holders fortunate enough to be flies on this meeting room’s walls.

Kieran’s arrival proves the catalyst that gets the four group regulars to reveal considerably more about themselves during the hour and a half we spend with them than they have in their numerous meetings up till now. Casella gives each man a crackerjack “confession” speech, allowing each actor his moment in the spotlight. A glance around the room also reveals some of the best reacting in town, for which director Barnicle shares credit with his supremely talented team of actors.

Pacheco does terrific work as Father Kevin, who not only is a priest, he gets to play on one TV’s Law And Order, and if it’s common knowledge that not all who enter the priesthood feel a God-given calling to do so, Kevin’s reason for donning a clerical collar may still be an eye-opener.

 A splendid Conte reveals the anger, pain, and frustration The Irish Curse has caused him in a marriage gone sour, along with a spirit scarred by his physical shortcomings, no pun intended.

As played by the always topnotch O’Hagan, Officer Stephen may be the last man on earth to set off anyone’s gaydar, but the secrets revealed by this outwardly self-confident cop suggest that Stephen’s string of casual hookups may well be for reasons that defy any gay cliché.

 Quinlan’s utterly winning Keiran holds so much inside him as he listens to each man’s story that his own revelation, kept silent till the eleventh hour, is all the more powerful, particularly in the hands of this fine young actor.

Finally, earning not one but two spontaneous bursts of applause is Hébert’s sensational Rick, he of the stuffed jock strap and seeming inability to stay faithful to the woman he professes to love with all his heart. There are actors who hold your attention when the focus is on them, and then there are actors like Hébert, so in the moment that you find it hard to look elsewhere, regardless of who’s speaking.

Casella’s play has been called formulaic, and though it indeed follows a time-tested formula, it does so with such originality, verve, and spice (four-letter words abound) that it’s no wonder it’s gone on to considerable success since winning Casella the Outstanding Playwright Award at the 2005 New York Fringe Festival.

 In addition to Barnicle’s nuanced direction and its nigh-on perfect cast, the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble production of The Irish Curse benefits from as fine a design team as you’ll find on any intimate stage. Scenic designer Thomas A. Walsh’s weathered church meeting room is as finely rendered and detailed as they come, thanks also to prop artist Katherine S. Hunt. Michael Gend’s lighting design ups the comedic and dramatic ante. Costume designer Merrily Murray-Walsh has given each character exactly the outfit you’d expect him to wear to a support group meeting. Kudos go also to scenic artist Ansley D. Ledford, assistant director Zach Kaufer, and stage manager Maria Viterelli.

The Irish Curse is produced by Beth Hogan and Craig Zehms.

The prudish are hereby forewarned. If an at times frankly sexual discussion of private male body parts and accompanying salty language are likely to offend, The Irish Curse may not be for you. For everyone else, regardless of age, nationality, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, if you enjoy acting and directing at their finest and laughter and tears at their most cathartic, you could not pick a better show to see this summer than The Irish Curse, a production blessed with all of the above.

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
August 9, 2012
Photos: Ron Sossi

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