Fairytale of New York
New York might well be a fairytale, but there’s still no place like home in Jessica Leen’s debut play “Two of Clubs,” where a little Cobh girl, lost and alone in the mad, bad, Big Apple, sets out to find a singing career with her big voice and even bigger dreams during the early 1940’s. Ambitious, with some first rate songs, “Two of Clubs” is a charming and heartfelt production that has you rooting for it from the get-go. But showing some fundamental problems, alongside its immense sense of promise, “Two of Clubs” both delights and breaks your heart a little, crafting some sublime moments but never quite coming together quite as well as it might have.
Call her Jazz. Call her Lena. Call her Polly. Call her whatever name you want, once it will get her on a New York stage where she can sing and finally be noticed. It might not be the same as back home in Cork, which she fled without warning, where people in pubs would call for her to sing. But New York has all the bright lights and big city jazz clubs an aspiring torch singer could ask for. Following a lucky break, things finally look up for the wannabe chanteuse, Polly. Until home comes calling in the shape of fellow Corkonian, Johnnie. An equally big dreamer, or so he says, the far less dynamic Johnnie upsets the applecart by making a homesick Polly fall in love with him. With war looming, no work to be found for an Irishman, and a baby on the way, Polly’s singing career might well stall if she’s not careful. And if it does, will love conquer all, or will all be conquered by unforeseen tragedy?
If “Two of Clubs” engages theatrically, due in no small measure to Ronan Dempsey’s excellent direction, which utilises every inch of available space superbly, it’s a tale that engages far less dramatically, despite some exquisitely realised moments. Indeed, in its current incarnation, it could be argued that “Two of Clubs” is a story not best suited to the stage. Novelistic in structure, repetitive in thematic scope, with its central male character lacking development, the dramatic immediacy required for it to engage an audience isn’t always there. This despite an extraordinarily promising opening when Polly, after lyrically describing the music driven city, delivers an incredible rendition of the first of several original songs, co-composed by Leen, along with Tiz McNamara and Dylan Howe. Impressively channeling the quintessential essence of the classic jazz standard, with Leen’s superb, if slightly nervous vocals capable of giving Melody Gardot a run at times, Leen has you just about ready to luxuriate, settle back, and enjoy. Until Johnnie arrives on the scene.
Gormless, charmless, one dimensional, Johnnie tells but doesn’t really show, and has very little of interest worth telling. Like the least satisfying of “Two of Clubs” songs, Baby Talk, the script descends upon his arrival into far weaker dramatic territory and never quite pulls itself back. Looking drastically under developed in comparison to Leen’s far more rounded and dynamic Polly, Johnnie’s function seems to be to constantly complain. He can’t find work because he’s Irish, because he’s injured, because he’s traumatized. It’s only a matter of time before the alcohol arrives. And when it does, along with his PTSD, it’s too late for us to care. Consequently the chemistry between the constantly histrionic, self-pitying, man-boy Johnnie, and the self-willed Polly, never ignites, and their relationship never seems entirely credible. Especially during the somewhat rushed and unconvincing ending, which tries to make a hard sell of it, but no one’s really buying.
Yet again, as is often the case with Theatre Upstairs, the space seems to challenge young designers to produce something special, with imagination looking to triumph over limitation. Here, set design by Nth degree, is nothing short of brilliant. A simple red design evokes time, place, mood, and context superbly, channeling part speakeasy, part apartment, part war zone, and part alleyway with huge success. Throughout, Gavin Hennessy’s sound design is deeply effective, even if it might overwhelm the actors in a few places. Darragh Shannon bravely tackles the one dimensional Johnnie, working with what he has available to him textually, giving something of an impassioned rather than a nuanced performance. In contrast, Jessica Leen’s Polly has both the best lines and the best songs. Even if her compelling ‘girl making her own way’ tale becomes an unconvincing boy-meets-girl story with tragic overtones, Leen is always engaging, even when she becomes locked and limited by Polly's mantra like misery.
With its lack of real dramatic intensity, and its constant thematic repetition slowing the pace, “Two of Clubs” can feel longer than its one hour fifteen minutes in length. If it’s aiming for Medea in a black dress, it feels too much like a less optimistic Brooklyn. Neither of which is an exact fit, for you sense there is something deeply original here trying to get out. Glimpsed during moments like Polly’s introduction, her last song, or in their touching, silent farewell before Johnnie’s departure for war. Like its torturous, if ultimately unconvincing, love story, “Two of Clubs” has you falling in love with it at first sight, before it becomes a little predictable, a little repetitive, and, ultimately, a little disappointing. A disappointment due, in no small measure, to the fact that there is such immense potential here. For Leen may have a little way to go yet, but her writing shows immense promise, her vocals are as smooth and dusky as mulled wine, and she commands the space with a quiet, firm presence, marking her as, potentially, a serious talent for the future.
“Two of Clubs” by Jessica Leen, presented by Nth Degree in association with Theatre Upstairs, runs at Theatre Upstairs until December 16th
For more information, visit Theatre Upstairs