Review: Lending an ear to VAN GOGH'S IN THE ATTIC at Abbey Theater In Dublin

Abbey Theatre presents third world premiere of a Sean Cooney play

By: Apr. 09, 2024
Review: Lending an ear to VAN GOGH'S IN THE ATTIC at Abbey Theater In Dublin
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Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh often used vivid colors and impasto technique  to express his moods in his Post-Impressionistic paints. In his play, VAN GOGH’S IN THE ATTIC, Irish playwright Sean Cooney uses swirls, twists, and vibrant wordplay to color his two-act comedy.

The play, a combination effort by the Abbey Theater of Dublin and Original Productions Theater, made its world premiere on April 5 and closes April 14 at the Abbey (5600 Post Road in Dublin). Described as a break-neck speed comedy, the show swirls around in circles with light colors of comedy surrounded by splotches of madness.

Traumatized by seeing both of his parents killed in an Irish Republican Army explosion during The Troubles in Ireland, Fergal MacAdoo (Phil Cunningham) copes by believing he is Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. His paintings are strong enough to be passed off as “undiscovered” works of the artist. Father Brady (Niko Carter) and Fritzi (Scott Douglas Wilson) want to take advantage of Fergal’s delusions to sell off his paintings as the real van Gogh’s to help fund their gun running activities for the IRA. Mary Barnacle (Dayton Edward Willison), a widower who has taken in Fergal/van Gogh, catches wind of the two’s scheme and brings in Erin (Grace Emmenegger-Conrad), a police officer posing as a caregiver, to catch her son-in-law Fritzi and Father Brady.

Amidst her investigation, Erin becomes the center piece in a love/lust pentagon. She falls for Fergal/van Gogh while attracting the lecherous attentions of Father Brady, Fritzi, and even Barnacle. In fact, every member of the cast, save Barnacle’s daughter and Fritzi’s wife Nora (Alyssa Ryan), is smitten by Erin.

Cooney’s script is much like a van Gogh painting. Some characters, like Erin, are created with intricate paintbrush strokes. With a charming Irish brogue, Emmenegger-Conrad delivers a well-polished performance who sees the person inside MacAdoo’s delusions.

Cunningham’s portrayal of MacAdoo/van Gogh is tightly constructed as a person struggling with mental illness. MacAdoo has studied an autobiography of van Gogh to know how much the artist suffered for the sake of his art.

Erin explains MacAdoo’s dissociative amnesia: “Vincent thinks he’s van Gogh and we are his family. For instance, Fritzi is van Gogh’s brother Theo, and Nora is his sister Wilhelmina, Father Brady is van Gogh’s father, the minister, and somehow I’m van Gogh’s prostitute, Gabrielle. I just hope he doesn’t cut off his ear and give it to me." It telegraphs a little too much of what is going to happen in the second act.

In his interviews, Cooney said VAN GOGH’S IN THE ATTIC is based on true experiences when he returned home to Ireland. While Erin and MacAdoo felt like fleshed out roles, the other characters seemed to be created in comic fingerpaint. Barnacle comes across as too seedy, Father Brady too creepy, Fritzi too greedy, and Nora too weepy to be taken seriously. For example, when van Gogh chops off his ear, Fritzi’s natural response is to snatch it off the ground and smear the bloody lobe over an unfinished painting. It’s more over-the-top disturbing than it is funny.

Despite its flaws, there were interesting artistic touches, great sight gags, and some droll one liners to the show. Director Joe Bishara opens the second act with time-released animation bringing to life van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”

The show also seem to be parodying the infamous painting scene in the movie TITANIC at the beginning of the second act with van Gogh painting a “nude” Gabrielle. The couch is turned away from the audience and appears to be empty until Erin shoots her leg up in the air. Father Brady then enters the room and cranes his neck to get a peek before being shooed away by Barnacle.

Those familiar with Cooney’s other works got a good chuckle when Erin and Barnacle broke the fourth wall in the second act. Barnacle suggests all Erin needs to do is reel in Fritzi, Erin looks directly at the audience and says, “What? He’s not Moby Dick!” (a nod to Cooney’s last play, MOBY DICK’S GONE MISSING).

For the most part, the audience in its packed April 7 showing guffawed with the antics of the characters. One compared it to a skit on the old Carol Burnett show.

As an artist, van Gogh wasn’t known for his realism or his crystal clear canvases. His work wasn’t for everyone. Why should a play that bears his name be any different?

Photo: Jerri Shafer


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