There’s an adage that states that no one on their deathbed ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time at work.” It encapsulates the theme of “An Irish Carol,” a charming but flawed original play making its annual appearance at The Keegan Theatre.
…charming…The cast is uniformly excellent…Audience members feel that they are sharing an evening with these sympathetic folks…
“An Irish Carol,” as the title suggests, is heavily inspired by the Charles Dickens novella and its stage versions that populate a theatre goer’s calendar this time of year. It takes place in Dublin during the Great Recession, where protagonist David (Kevin Adams) is struggling to keep the traditional pub (inherited from his father) he has run for decades afloat in a city that seems more interested in modern watering holes.
The play has two stars: Adams, who is captivating, and the set. Keegan Resident Scenic Designer Matthew J. Keenan (who wrote “An Irish Carol” for the theatre more than a decade ago) has crafted an authentic and detailed, full reproduction of an Irish pub, complete with worn-down stools and top-shelf bottles that look like they have not been touched in some time. If anything, the set is too detailed. A prominent set of golf clubs in the foreground is never touched nor mentioned, and an attic stuffed with unused Christmas decorations and other bric-a-brac distracts from the comparative starkness of the main scene.
Adams has been playing David since the play’s inception and it shows. He slips into the role of this grumpy and regretful older man like an old slipper and commands attention even when he is silently stewing over his ledger while the small band of regulars chatter away at the bar. Adams’s best scene is one in which he does not speak at all, reading a letter from a now-dead former lover. We never find out what she wrote and it makes for a powerful moment.
“An Irish Carol” could use more moments like that one. This year marks the 13th go-round for Keenan’s short play, but it often feels like it is still being workshopped. Some arguments are repetitive and inconclusive, and other interesting threads are not fully developed. At times, Keenan seems to struggle against the Dickens model—a couple of references to a never-seen autistic child as the Tiny Tim equivalent are the most egregious examples. “An Irish Carol” is at its best when Keenan lets the story play out on its own terms without trying to tie it back to Ebenezer Scrooge.
That’s in part because David is not that much of a Scrooge. Almost all the suffering he has wrought is against himself as he realizes that, in devoting all his life to the pub, he has failed to live. The pub is failing because patrons who came to raise a glass with the once-jovial barkeep no longer want to spend time with the curmudgeon he has become. The few stalwart patrons who remain just want their friend to be happy again.
The most enjoyable moments in director Mark A. Rhea’s production come when those patrons are front and center. The cast is uniformly excellent and, like Adams, many of them are reprising roles they have played many times. This creates an organic realism that can only come with familiarity. Audience members feel that they are sharing an evening with these sympathetic folks, not just watching from behind a fourth wall. Those moments, and the strength of Adams’s performance, are the highlights of this Dupont Circle Christmas tradition.
Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
“An Irish Carol” runs through December 31, 2023, at The Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, DC 20036. For more information and to purchase tickets, go online or call 202-265-3767.