REVIEW: VARIETY, Wednesday, October 15, 1969
Josh Productions (William Devane and Joseph Stern), in association with
Moe Weise, presentation of drama in three parts by Thomas Murphy. Staged
by Arvin Brown; setting, Kert Lundell; lighting, Ron Wallace; costumes,
Vanessa James; production Stage manager, James O'Connell; general manager,
Gugieotli & Black; company manager, J. Ross Stewart; publicity, Max Eisen;
associates, Warren Pincus, Cheryl Sue Dolby. Opened Oct. 8, '69, at the
Mercury Theatre, N.Y.; $6.50 top Tues.-Thurs., $6.95 Fri.-Sun.
Harry Carney........... Charles Cioffi
Hugo Carney........... Anthony Palmer
Betty Carney ......... Roberta Maxwell
Mush O'Reilly...... Dermot McNamara
Iggy Carney............... Don Plumley
Michael Carney............Michael McGuire
Michael Carney Sr. ....; Stephen Elliott
Des Carney ................ Tom Atkins
First produced in London eight years ago, and preemed in the U.S, two
seasons ago at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre, "A. Whistle in the
Dark" has finally made it to New York. It turns out to be well worth
Thomas Murphy's drama is legit-in-the-raw, a consistently absorbing,
blisteringly powerful theatre piece that leaves a spectator exhausted but
exhilarated. Despite a profoundly unpleasant theme and savage characters,
the play and the production are of such high quality that it's a prospect
for a fair run. If this play can't draw off - Broadway audiences, serious
drama in New York is in trouble.
The corrosive effects of living by a mindless code of virility are
persuasively set forth in ''Whistle." More than just a fashionable tract
against violence, the play is a rich and psychologically plausible study
of a fascinatingly differentiated family, as well 93 «t» eloquent
sociological document about lower-middleclass life.
The characters are Irish immigrants in England. The oldest of five
brothers, who has a lowpaying but respectable job in Coventry and is
comfortably married to a British girl, is visited by his clan.
First, the three most brutal of his brothers who quickly take control 61
the household. Then comes his youngest, least savage sibling and his
blowhard father. The conflict arises from the attempts of the elder
brother to wean the youngest from this nest of vipers. Both are destroyed
in the process.
In view of the current violent conflict in Northern Ireland, the play
has special pertinence, although it was written a decade ago. It's quite
old fashioned in construction, with a distinct beginning, middle and end,
but it's not pat and it consistently grips interest. Credibility is
occasionally strained for dramatic effect, particularly in the conclusion,
but the play has an inexorable sweep that transcends details.
The family in this play is as hair-raising a brood as any in Jacobean
drama. In their relish of blood sport and inability to come to terms with
society on any level but the physically destructive, they suggest a mob
of superannuated medieval mercenaries. But the author has made them live
on the stage.
The older brother, torn between a sense of decency, physical fear and
atavistic roots, is a compellingly complex character. The father is a
fraud and a failure,. who has warped his children's psyches to
compensate for his own inadequacy, but he has the redeeming gift of charm,
and becomes a memorable stage creation. The most vicious of the brothers
is a study in pure malevolence. He is not without intelligence, and his
raging third-act justification of his view of life is superbly written.
Several of the players in this production originated their roles two
years ago at the Long Wharf Theatre, and virtually the entire cast has a
predominantly regional legit background. The director, Arvin Brown. Is the
artistic director at Long Wharf. It adds up to a gold star for U.S.
regional theatre, for this production is brilliantly acted and superbly
No performance falls below the level of superior, and there's a rare
sense of ensemble technique. Stephen Elliott turns in a virtuoso
portrayal as the phony patriarch, replete with fascinating detail but
Michael McGuire has perhaps the most difficult role as the indecisive eider brother, and he gives a subtle, intelligent, nuance-filled
characterization. Charles Cioffi, playing the most brutal of the clan, is literally horrifying.
He's an actor with an unusually powerful
presence and physical skill and his performance fastens itself to the
memory like a leech. Roberta Maxwell is lovely and touching as the
terrified, desperate wife, and Tom Atkins. Don Plumley, Anthony Palmer and
Dermot McNamara offer polished supporting portrayals.
Brown's staging is admirably disciplined and attentive to the play's
resonance, but the pitch is keyed at too high a level throughout. The
third act in particular is too emotionally draining, so by the time the
climax arrives an audience's capacity for reaction is depleted.
Kert Lundell has designed a playable and subtle setting of a
lower-middle-class parlor, and Ron Wallace's lighting is flavorful.
"Whistle" is the first producing venture of William Devane and Joseph
Stern, two-young actors, and it's an impressive managerial debut. The
film rights to the play were sold years ago, but the play might repay a
number of small "off - Broadway" editions in selected cities.
REVIEW: TIME MAGAZINE, Friday, October 17, 1969
of the House of Carney
The death knell of the realistic play is sounded
every season, and each season some play refutes it. A Whistle in
Me Dark is just such a drama. It has the raw, roiling
energy of life. It is full of the rude poetry of the commonplace. It
states truths about human nature that one would rather forget, and
reminds one that being born human is the alltime crisis of every man.
One of the pressure points of that crisis is the
family. The Carneys are a pride of Irish gutter lions. The father is a
drunkard, a bully and a braggart. When his boys were small children,
he routed them out of bed at 2 or 3 a.m. and set them to clouting each
other till they collapsed. Bred to the tooth and the claw, three of
the sons live as pimps, louts and barflies. A fourth son, Michael,
flees this world of lacerating animal instinct. He settles in
Coventry, marries an English girl and opts for a life of decency,
order and reason. But the clan Carney moves in with him like
Paralyzed by Inadequacy. This is where
the play actually begins, and the events that follow have resonances
of The Homecoming — though Irish Playwright Thomas Murphy's
play was produced four years before Pinter's. The brothers make passes
at Michael's wife and even suggest using his home as a whorehouse.
Michael is faced down, raged at and humiliated by his father, who is a
perfect blend of aging bull and undiminished blarney. Michael's wife
urges him to stand up for his rights. But he is paralyzed by a nagging
sense of masculine inadequacy.
As the evening builds to a tragic climax, a
melancholy sense of the dooming, repetitive quality of family life
patterns grows with it. The playgoer is invaded and disturbed by a
sense of the lost ifs that determine people's lives. If the father had
not been an alcoholic, if some rays of civilized light had filtered
into the Carney home, if brute passions could be confined to the
brutes, if, if, if—a lament for humanity's near misses at achieving
humanity. For awful as they are, the Carneys are not all bad. They
have courage; they are loyal, they tell the truth, insofar as they can
see it. Their destiny is not to be evil but to be unable to mobilize
and release the good qualities that they have in them. It is the
playwright's essential fairness and depth of understanding of this
plight that give A Whistle in the Dark its strength, wisdom and
broody disconcerting beauty.
The performances are all labors of skill and love.
For a flawless delineation of the charm, bluster and pathos of the
self-conned father, Stephen Elliott's work should be studied by any
actor who ever cherished his craft. There is a silent music in Arvin
Brown's direction as he moves his players through arpeggios of
violence and a discriminating counterpoint of darkness and light to
give a final touch of distinction to a play worthy of every tribute.
REVIEW: "A Study of a Most Unpleasant Family"
New York Times, Thursday, October 9, 1969
"A Whistle in the Dark" Opens at the Mercury
Stephen Elliott Excels in Role of Father
By CLIVE BARNES
Murphy's play, "A Whistle in the Dark," which opened at the Mercury
Theater last night, is a strange, ugly, impressive play. It was produced
originally in London, and a couple of seasons ago Arvin Brown staged its
American premiere for his Long Wharf Theater Company in New Haven. I saw,
and admired, the play there, and it was fundamentally the same production
— still with Mr. Brown directing and many of the original New Haven cast—
that has now been brought to New York.
Seeing it at its final preview, I was once more struck
by the unusual vigor and directness of a play that interweaves themes of
violence, loyalty and cowardice in a study of one of the most unpleasant
families in stage history. My colleague, George Oppenheimer, has recently
written most attractively about stage characters he would not care to
invite home to dinner. Mr. Murphy's family here—"The Fighting Carneys" -
are hardly the kind of people you even invite home for a coffee. They are
Yet there is a great deal more to Mr. Murphy's story
than a loving, at times rather melodramatic description of the face of
violence. There is in this play something of the horror, complexity and
final catharsis of a Greek tragedy. Mr. Murphy is not quite taut enough in
the construction of his play. He occasionally skids perilously close to
the belly laughs of 'bathos, and, if anything, he tends to overwrite. But
he has the stuff of drama in him and "A Whistle in the Dark" is a good,
rousing and gripping play.
It is the story of an Irish family—the Carneys. The
father is a fake, a bully and a drunk. A coward himself, he's brought up
his five sons to be street fighters, louts and bullies. When he had the
money he would come home drunk at 2 o'clock in the morning, wake up the
kids and force them to fight one another. Yet they loved him. He had the
lilting gift of the Irish.
At last one brother escapes from County Mayo, crosses
the Irish Channel, settles in the English town of Coventry and marries an
English girl. This is Michael, the odd-man-out in the family, who wants to
be respectable, to live in peace and to bring up his own children. The
play is the outlining of his tragedy.
First, three of his brothers leave Ireland to live with
him. Boisterous and layabouts, they destroy the carefully knit fabric of
his new life. Michael can make no contact with them. One night, coming
home, he is attacked by a Coventry gang. He cries for help, and almost
immediately his three brothers are there. A coward, Michael runs away. His
brothers will never forgive him. He will never forgive himself.
Eventually the father arrives, with the youngest of the
Carney brothers, a boy that Michael always hoped he would be able to
protect from the brutalizing atmosphere of his home environment.
Now Mr. Murphy, having set up the situation, puts
Michael, the blowhard father and the sickly tough brothers to their test
The brothers are challenged to a fight The violence escalates with a
pointlessness all the more horrible for being inevitable, and Michael is
cornered by his fate.
It is the kind of play that requires very careful
staging and acting. Its rambustoiusness is frankly old fashioned— compare
the stagey violence here, for example, with the stealthy convincing
violence of the movie "Easy Rider" and the point is instantly made. But
Mr. Murphy's dramatics can carry conviction, if they are given conviction,
and they are.
It is the success of Aryin Brown's staging that he
maintains the pressure without ever letting it boil over. Helped by
the seedy settings devised by Kert Lundell, Mr. Brown conrives to give the
play its full measure as a domestic tragedy, with all its miseries,
mistakes and pettiness.
The acting is first-rate. Stephen Elliott as the
father—singing songs of the old country, exercising his spurious
authority, and living vicariously off the violence of his sons—is
remarkable in that he wins our sympathy as well as demanding our loathing.
The shallow fakery of the man is evident, yet so also is that oddly deep
The other outstanding performance is Charles Cioffi as
Harry, an ox of a man, swinging a bicycle chain, a pimp, a bully yet also
with a kind of heroic honesty in a diametric contrast to his father. Of
the others I might mention Roberta Maxwell's defiantly tattered little
wife, Michael McGuire's worried and disturbed Michael, and Don Plumley's
pathological yet occasionally honorable bully boy, Iggy. It all makes for
a disturbing yet far from unrewarding evening.