Tuesday, December 25, 2012

John O'Hanlon's "The Buddhist of Castleknock": Book Review

Guess who's coming for Christmas? This Irish tragicomedy of manners as culture clash, set in a changing Dublin, features Jim O'Hanlon's twist on this storyline. John returns from London to introduce his new girlfriend to his family, the Sullivans. Mother Edie and father Seán, brothers Edward and DJ, and sister Tara meet Rai, "English, of African extraction," as the notes of this play indicate, and as Tara repeats at one tense point in the dramatic tensions that ensue. Despite the initial set-up and the dustjacket blurb, it's not racism per se which kicks this play into high gear so much as the fear of what the multicultural couple's stance represents to the Irish Catholic family.

John, like Rai, has embraced Buddhism. So, their renunciation of meat, alcohol, and Midnight Mass adds up to perceived insults in the eyes of some of the Sullivans. This complicates the traditional celebrations the family clings to at the holiday. Over Christmas Eve, Christmas, and St. Stephen's Day, O'Hanlon's play shows the conflicts that result when customs are challenged by John and Rai.

Adding to this, Edie's sister, Kathleen, and her husband Jimmy arrive for their usual visit, although Rai's predicament introduces a not altogether unexpected plot complication--or perhaps setting up a tidy resolution--in the middle of the action. This did not surprise me much, and it seemed too standard a subplot, but it allows the domestic situation to unfold as DJ's machinations stir up more of this seasonal scuffling. O'Hanlon arranges parts of this similar to a situation comedy with a moral, and this style does not allow nuance.

I found Jimmy's patriotic barstool rebel defense also very predictably handled, far too stereotypical to allow much nuance, but perhaps on stage depth might emerge from what's unsaid on the page. Whatever counterargument might be given for the sustenance of Irish culture or its ancient language in the midst of unprecedented globalization and migration does not get its own say here, at least from the script in my hand. The play works best when it's more sensitive, as in a scene where Rai, John, Seán, and Edward try meditation under her guidance; Tara watches with a vodka bottle nearby, bemusedly.

O'Hanlon, whose British writing-directing credits include episodes of the venerable "Coronation Street," handles this play with expected verve. Premiered by Fishamble in Dublin, 2003, it was published by New Island in 2007. The book version moves neatly, hitting the beats in what appears dependable fashion. For all its comforting craft, it handles the Irish Tara coincidence with Tibetan Buddhism's manifestations of compassion, Green and White Tara, neatly as a fitting symbol of harmony that may unite the (post-)Catholic with the globalizing present and future of Ireland. (Amazon US, 12-10-12)

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