Cyprus Avenue The Public Theater, New York City
Ros Kavanagh

Cyprus Avenue

Reviewer's Rating

Some advice for the audiences of the Public Theater’s Cyprus Avenue: brace yourself. Within the first minutes, you’ll get a taste of how easily this show will shock you. It’s the first of many times that you’ll find yourself with your mouth agape as you follow the mental unraveling of a man who must re-examine the truths by which he lives. David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue is a psychological thriller that delineates a fragile tightrope between the outrageously funny and the darkest depths of insanity.

We begin in a psychologist’s office with a nervous-looking Eric (Stephen Rea) and his appointed psychologist, Bridget (Ronke Adekoluejo). Eric, a Belfast native and British nationalist, begins to grapple with the world that his granddaughter has been born into, and whether his place in that world – long unquestioned – is disappearing. It all starts, he says, when his daughter had a daughter. His wife and daughter, admiring the newborn, ask him who he thinks the baby looks like. Much to his distress, he already has an answer: the baby looks like Gerry Adams. And with that, his identity begins to collapse.

Not being up to date on Irish politics, I had to google Gerry Adams when I got home. But my ignorance did not diminish the hilarity of this accusation, which the rest of the play revolves around. It also helps that Eric is a very colorful conversationalist. His own description (and virulent hatred) of Adams, the bearded one-time leader of the Sinn Fein political party, is enough to sustain the joke without any prior knowledge.

Eric’s psychologist, Bridget, is strikingly intelligent and collected, and Adekoluejo plays her with a steady coolness that serves as a comfort in contrast to Eric. As Eric launches into unpacking the events of how he came to be in the psychologist’s office, he reveals the depths of his bigotry. It seems there’s no ethnic or religious group that he doesn’t have hateful stereotypes for, and he has some choice words for Bridget, a young black woman whom he refuses to believe could be as British as he is. For all of her patience and level-headed counterpoints to his tirades, when Eric asks her if she is an angel you may find that you’ve been wondering the same thing.

The talented cast is matched by David Ireland’s sharp, fiercely witty writing. The descriptive way in which Eric tries to paint for us, with tireless monologues, the lens through which he sees the world is fascinating. And it is funny. As Eric spews vitriol into a sterile white space, he seems utterly harmless. His backwardness, his bygone generation’s prejudices – they can’t help but poke at our own political bruises, and it’s cathartic to laugh at a helpless old man using slurs mostly unfamiliar to us. (Eric’s favorite is the word “fenian,” a slur for Catholics.) “RESPECT MY POINT OF VIEW,” he screams, like the terrifying physical manifestation of a Twitter comments section. So you’ll laugh – a lot. But if you bother to pay attention to the look on his wife’s face, or the panicked anger of his daughter, you’ll see that something truly dark has been lurking beneath the surface from Act I.

The veins of Cyprus Avenue run deep. With debates about borders and identities ripping our country apart, Eric’s identity collapse is an examination of a mind that demands introspection. His blind governmental loyalty and his equally blind hatred of people different from him set the stage for a study of how we define ourselves. “I’m worried my entire existence has been driven by the forces of history,” Eric cries. And Ireland brings it all to a thrilling, inevitable, yet completely unforeseen end. As you grapple with the overwhelming political themes, you are almost blindsided by the cutting personal tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.