Autumn Royal, a Dark, Witty Comedy, Marks Irish Rep's Return to Live Theater

Ever since the coronavirus pandemic began and the subsequent shutdown of live theater in March 2021, New York's Irish Repertory Theatre has been at the forefront of keeping the art alive. The company produced a series of plays on Zoom that made creative use of the medium, largely due to the video talents of Sarah Nichols. Foremost among them, are Conor McPherson's The Weir, Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet and the musical Meet Me in St. Louis with their computer-generated effects; and Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney, a play that was seemingly written for Zoom, featuring three characters in three different settings.

Now, 19 months later, the North American premiere of the 2017 play Autumn Royal by Kevin Barry, which stars Maeve Higgins and John Keating, marks Irish Rep's return to live theater. Irish Rep, or any theater, might be forgiven for taking the safe route after the pandemic, producing a light comedy or scaled-down musical. But Autumn Royal is safe only its use of two characters. The subject matter and Barry's take on it make for a dark, but very, very funny evening.

Set in the city of Cork, Ireland, Autumn Royal is the story of siblings May and Timothy, whose father is ill. It's unclear how long he will even last. It could be a week or a year or, God forbid, decades. What's worse is that he lives with them. They're not young and not eager to put their lives on hold any longer. To top things off, this is a family with issues, volumes of them.

They stew, they fret, they argue, and, maybe worst of all, they remember. They consider a range of possibilities just this side (and that side) of murder. And even when a solution seems at hand—like placing the father into the titular assisted living facility, which for some reason is named after a variety of grape—things get bollocksed up. It is a scary moment, and yet it gets some of the play's biggest laughs. This is an Irish comedy, after all, so any shot of comedy is served with a chaser of bile—and vice versa.

Autumn Royal, like a lot of Irish plays, has echoes of Anton Chekhov: lost characters and an undercurrent of sadness. Tim looks for an escape from this life, a move to Australia, where he can start things over. And yet, one knows that he is a perpetually lost soul and Australia will remain just a dream. For May and Tim, there is no place like home. That sentence, for them, seems like a lifetime sentence.

Under the tight direction of Ciarán O'Reilly, Autumn Royal runs at a swift pace, clocking in at 70 minutes. And the pace serves the play well. Higgins, a comedian and a regular panelist on NPR's news quiz show Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!, is much different from her radio appearances (does one appear on radio?). Regardless, here her comic delivery is blunt, but her timing is razor sharp. The audience often laughs at her most horrifying lines. Keating is practically a member of Irish Rep's stock company, if an actual company were to exist. He has appeared in more than a dozen shows at Irish Rep in a variety of roles. Here, he is front and center with Higgins, and the two seem to have a natural chemistry, even if that chemistry could become combustible at any moment. This is all the more surprising given that this is Higgins' North American stage debut. Comedians don't always perform well in personae other than those of their own creation, but with only a couple of stage appearances to her credit, Higgins takes to the stage and May's character with unusual ease.

With Autumn Royal, Irish Rep makes us happy for what we have been missing and sad for what we have missed. This is a rich little play that is well worth a trip to the theater.

Of course there are vaccination and mask protocols. Proof of vaccination and photo ID are required. Inside the theater, masks are required, but getting into the theater and settled was no more difficult than before the pandemic. Also, there are no paper programs, but one can download one to your smartphone from a QR code posted inside. It's worth it, if only for the glossary of Irish terms that may be unfamiliar to an American audience.

Autumn Royal runs through November 21 at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, New York. For tickets and more information go to IrishRep.org.

John Keating Maeve Higgins in Autumn Royal
John Keating and Maeve Higgins star in Autumn Royal, New York's Irish Repertory Theater's return to live theater. Carol Rosegg