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Off-Off-Broadway Review

Rat in the Skull

With an outstanding cast and unobtrusive direction, Wallfly Theater Company's new production of Ron Hutchinson's "Rat in the Skull" turns a single incident at London's Paddington Green police station into a complex and thoughtfully rendered look at the tangled politics of Northern Ireland.

"Rat in the Skull" is set in 1984, when the continued struggles between the Catholic nationalists and the Protestant unionists were manifested in a series of bombings by the Irish Republican Army; we see a photo montage of the decade's violence in the opening moments of this production. The play takes place entirely at Paddington Green, where serial IRA bomber Roche (Colin Stewart) is being held for questioning.

The resulting action is set against a spare backdrop, with only a few chairs and a table on stage; a photograph of Roche's bloody face, brutalized by the police, stares from a projection screen in the background. We soon learn that the cop culprit is Nelson (Tom O'Leary), a Northern Irish Protestant who harbors a deep resentment for Roche and his ilk and who, paradoxically, allows Roche to escape punishment by beating him.

Although Hutchinson eventually reveals just how the thrashing occurred, the winding conversations that unfold between Roche, Nelson, and the two British policemen at the station are clearly the meat of the play. Grasping all the nuances in a play with a lengthy glossary of Irish slang can present difficulty for American audiences, but there is plenty here to sink your teeth into. Hutchinson allows you to see his character's arguments from every angle, moving deftly from character to character, each new perspective seeming suddenly valid.

This is in part because Hutchinson shows that all the arguments are versions of the same thing: Each man believes that he is the only one who is righteously upholding his ancestors' traditions, seeing the others as cold and calculating, though no one can express exactly what he is fighting about. But it is also thanks to the impressive and often impassioned performances by a strong cast, each player convincing enough to effectively speak his piece. Most remarkable is a tour de force from O'Leary, a showman who transforms in an instant from quick-witted charmer to vicious inquisitor, turning an onlooking officer into a one-man audience.

The most enduring message that "Rat in the Skull" conveys is a bleak one: the sinking realization that Northern Ireland will not be entirely free of "the Troubles" (as the centuries-old conflicts are often called) in the foreseeable future. "There'll be a dozen after me and a dozen more again," Roche says impassively; directors Laurence Lowry and Roderick Hill reflect this cyclical nature in their staging, recycling old configurations with new characters. Actors sit still on the sidelines in straight-backed chairs when not on stage, as if uncomfortably awaiting their own trial. Although this incident will be over when the curtain drops, they seem to say, we'll still be here.

Presented by Wallfly Theatre Company in association with the Drilling Company as part of the First Irish Theatre Festival at the Drilling Company Theater, 236 W. 78th St, NYC. Sept. 22Oct. 2. Tue.–Sat., 8 p.m., Sat. and Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.

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