In Irish playwright Jimmy Murphy's "The Muesli Belt," at Theatre Banshee in Burbank, a struggling pub owner and his neighbors face encroaching gentrification and the real estate feeding frenzy that was part of the stratospheric (and doomed) 1990s economic boom referred to in Ireland as the "Celtic Tiger."
Murphy's bittersweet drama, a U.S. premiere, opens in 1999 Dublin where the demolition ball of progress is banging on the door of a decrepit community in the guise of a developer intent on tearing down old properties for a new “muesli belt”: trendy bistros, health food stores and new apartments, to accommodate an expected influx of well-heeled yuppies. Square in his sites is the Black Pool, a shabby, 100-year-old neighborhood pub resting on what has become prime real estate. The pub's proprietor Mick (Matt Foyer) owns the ancient house next door, too, and the prospect of such a large plot of land to build on has gung-ho developer Mossy (Andrew Leman) salivating.
Murphy wrote his play before the bubble burst. Today, with the world still reeling in the bankrupt aftermath of a worldwide spending binge, the plot is weighted with inescapable irony.
Mick, whose dreams of success died long ago, sells out for a small fortune. The decision is a blow to his small circle of friends: regular customer Nora (Kathleen M. Darcy), young barmaid Sinéad (Lisa Dobbyn) and widower Tommy (Ian Patrick Williams), who has rented the house next door to the pub for 40 years.
A newly retired trash collector, Tommy is both angry and grief-stricken to learn that he will be dispossessed after finally scraping together enough money over the years to offer to buy the house himself. His plans to fix up the first home that he would ever own had given him a new lease on life.
Nora is appalled. She had refused Mossy's offer for her rundown beauty salon in her determination to cling to what has been the family business, despite losing most of her customers to trendier establishments. Mick's betrayal of Tommy, she feels, extends to the community whose history-soaked character is vanishing under a tide of plastic artificiality.
As the play progresses, emotions run high and a permanent rift among the group seems inevitable, although papered over with belated reassurances to the contrary that resonate more with wishful thinking than with truth.
Directed by Sean Branney with a keen eye for nuance, the cast does a fine job painting the characters' shifting emotional colors. Foyer's Mick, a believable mixture of guilt and eagerness to be gone, offers sheepish justifications for his decision to sell Tommy's house out from under him, while alternately trying to elicit sympathy for the necessity of the sale and attempting to deflect blame with lashings of heedless cruelty.
Williams balances Tommy with dignity, avoiding bathos even when his bluster about fighting the sale dissolves into tears.
Darcy's strong performance reveals the quiet despair beneath Nora's vodka-fueled, tough-talking exterior and as attractive Sinéad, Dobbyn nicely balances the contradiction of someone who can offer Tommy compassion and condemn Mick for his betrayal of a friend, and then move in on the newly flush Mick as a possible meal ticket.
Leman's Mossy, meanwhile, bursts on the scene with such ferocious bonhomie and proselytizing fervor for replacing the old — no matter how historic — with the new, that the revelation of his ruthlessness is downright jolting.
(The roles of Mick and Mossy are double-cast. John McKenna and Andrew Graves, respectively, play the roles on a rotating basis throughout the run.)
The skillful staging of the play is nicely enhanced by set designer Arthur MacBride's well-used pub interior and Bosco Flanagan's ambient lighting.
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.
What: “The Muesli Belt”
Where: Theatre Banshee, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends Dec. 2.
More info: (818) 846-5323, www.theatrebanshee.org