You must see Howie the Rookie by the Irish dramatist Mark O’Rowe, who’s only 30 years old. The piece represents an original voice and a staggering achievement. I can think of no more vital theater in years than this savage story that bursts with blood-and-gutter poetry and such awesome young talent.
Directed by Mike Bradwell, the production was first seen at Mr. Bradwell’s renowned spawning ground for new playwrights, the Bush Theatre in London, and is receiving its New York premiere at the downtown studio, Performance Space 122. The dramatist’s two actors, Aidan Kelly and Karl Shiels, are both so exhilaratingly real that every actor in town should see them, see the possibilities , or remind themselves of them. In their fierce, hypnotic naturalism, these two Irish actors return the stage to the simmering undercurrents and danger of the young Al Pacino.
Our theater has become too “refined,” and American blue-collar stage actors are as rare as blue-collar plays. But you will not take your eyes off Messrs. Kelly and Shiels. They look you back squarely in the eye, too, though not threateningly. It’s more a matter of urgency and trust in the intimacy of small rooms where their story must be told and the language is thrillingly alive.
Mark O’Rowe’s Howie the Rookie follows the new work of Martin McDonagh ( The Leenane Trilogy ) and Conor McPherson ( The Weir )–but is it a part of it? For myself, those gifted dramatists have been overrated by a fawning New York that’s fallen too hard for their Holy Trinity of Guinness, goblins and Gothic. Mr. McPherson and Mr. McDonagh have come uncomfortably close to re-enforcing the patronizing myth of an Ireland that’s home to thick yokels, occasional werewolves and murderous old crones pissing in porridge pots on long and stormy nights. It’s as if Ireland were still locked in turn-of-the-century backwater blarney. To which the many admirers of Mr. McPherson and Mr. McDonagh may well respond, “Ah, bollocks to ya!”
Maybe so, but quirky tales aren’t great tales. Though Howie the Rookie has its eccentricities, it strikes me forcibly as an authentic nightmare of a Dublin that’s not for tourists. Tourists Keep Out! The evening’s two interrelated monologues speak to us with lovely, grotesque bawdiness about urban losers and mythic warriors lost in the crossfire, of slags and lunatic charmers and savage ill fate. The sinewy, staccato rhythms and rich argot–the thick Dublin accents alone–threaten to drown us in incomprehensible words at first, as if tuning in to a foreign language. Worry not! We soon settle in. It’s the most astonishing thing: Compelled to listen, we find that we speak the language. It’s an emotional, musical language that underpins this dramatist’s fresh voice. It seems jazzily improvised.
Artie Shaw’s wonderful description of playing that impossible instrument, the clarinet, in the Ken Burns jazz documentary applies to magic wordsmiths like Mark O’Rowe: “… You’re trying to make something happen that never happened before. You’re trying to make a sound that no one ever got before, creating an emotion. You’re trying to take … notes and make them come out in a way that moves you. If it moves you, it’s going to move others.”
“What is it?
All right, Ollie?
All right, The Howie?
Stop, stand, cock me tush.
The fuck’re you burnin’?
Me mat, he says.”
So begins Part One of Howie the Rookie, bizarrely, with Aidan Kelly’s coiled The Howie Lee (“Lee as in The Bruce,” he’s pleased to tell us) warming his tush where a pal is burning a scabies-infested mattress. It will lead to a random feud with the infected Rookie Lee, a stylish stud fond of “lodgy-bodgy” with any old slag, but not a fighter, not a member of the warrior working class. And it will end in wormy visions of hell and The Howie’s own useless death along the way.
Then he’s off home to his bullying mother with the bad breath and glitter on her cheeks and his old dad with the weak ticker who blew all his savings on a handicam. “… Fuck it, he’s comin’ toward me now, red light flashin’.” Then The Howie goes “Up the new shops … Call them the new shops the last 10 years, ‘cos 10 years ago, when they were built, that’s what we called them then . Built in a circle, their backs face out to keep bandits at bay.”
There’s the foul, belching monster known as Avalanche, sexual goddess of the grotesque, bulging on bar stools in black ski pants or, God forbid, the white ones. (She’s the dramatist’s funniest portrait, among a few.) There’s the bolloxy torment of scabies, the retch and stench of blighted backstreet Dublin. And there’s the vengeance of the insane, feral chase after The Rookie who infected the lads, which turns into a near pornographic hunt for prey, a breathtaking primal death wish flirting with death.
Part Two is told by The Rookie Lee, played by Karl Shiels in the other electric performance of the evening. “Handsome bastard, I am,” The Rookie tells us. “Bit attractive to the dollies, they’re into me.” He adds as naturally as having an easy lodgy-bodgy: “When I was young, the oul’ fella told me ’bout the ancient Mayan Indians … Mayans believed God of death shows himself to a man many times before takin’ him, like, before he dies.”
The Rookie, it so happens, is heavily in debt to a dangerous gangland thug named Ladyboy for accidentally killing his precious Siamese fighting fish. (“Betas, they’re called, says Ladyboy. Chink fightin’ fish. Chink meanin’ Oriental.”) The Howie turns out to be his unlikely savior in a murderous test of manhood, or martyrdom–first rescuing him from being beaten to a pulp after a quickie with the mother of a 6-foot-tall boy “built like a human white puddin’.”
“Bam! Bam! I look up. The Howie’s layin’ into the puddin’ boy, plantin’ punch after punch on his stomach and ribs, poundin’ double quick, flurrious furious combos, weakens the middle area, starts throwin’ head shots, snappin’ it back. Bam! Bam! Snap back! Bam! Down to the ribs, I hear a crack, Jaysus , he’s a goer. White puddin’ boy may as well be on Mars, he’s grabbin’, gaspin’ at the air. The Howie bobs an’ ducks, hooks, jabs an’ chops, chops, chops the jolly giant down.”
Mr. O’Rowe clearly relishes a fight as much as A.J. Liebling, but his human animals are far beyond sweet science or Queensberry rules. You might need a strong stomach to take the ultimate, primitive fight scene vomiting on blood and bone that’s fought to the death between the flesh-eating Ladyboy and the battered, sacrificed Howie. “A vision of blood an’ teeth, right there, of skin an’ hair an’ they’re flying so fast ’round the room,” the awestruck Rookie tells us. “I’m afraid if they touch off me, I’ll scald, I’ll burn.”
Howie the Rookie ‘s fine minimalist set and lighting design by Es Devlin and Simon Bennison suggest a prison yard, a no-go area or fortress where the grass is greener beyond. Mark O’Rowe’s cursed antiheroes of the Dublin underclass haven’t a prayer. Yet this outstanding young dramatist leaves us exhilarated by them just the same.
We couldn’t be more curious to discover what other plays he has in store for us at the start of a glorious career.