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Chester Bailey

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - October 19, 2022

Reed Birney and Ephraim Birney
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Chester Bailey. A prosaic title, and the play at Irish Rep, by Joseph Dougherty, doesn't overflow with poetry, either. It's a straightforward little two-hander, one with perhaps too many tangents and not enough actual dramatization, favoring instead the current let's-wander-downstage-and-narrate school of playwrighting that so often feels like laziness. But that's not to say Chester Bailey isn't gracing the Irish Rep stage. It offers two juicy roles, in this instance taken by a gifted father-and-son duo, and at its heart is an intriguing issue that doesn't often make its way onto the boards: If an individual is surviving through self-deceit, and if that individual isn't hurting anybody in so doing, is there a moral quandary at stake?

The individual in this case is Chester (Ephraim Birney), a twentysomething would-be soldier rotting away in a Long Island mental facility in 1945. The young Brooklynite really wanted to enlist (first question is, why wasn't he just drafted? Most men his age were). But he was also conflicted about it, torn between his sense of duty (and desire to impress the babes) and fear of combat. In all events, his mother was dead set against it, and his father, a loving but weak presence, pulled some strings and got Chester a job as a riveter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Chester isn't happy about that, but it's what his mom wanted, and, as he narrates (too much), "My father looked up at me and I could see in his eyes this was just how it was going to be and there was nothing either one of us could do about it." Too many words for the thought, and it's not the only time Dougherty will be guilty of that.

On the job at that navy yard, something ghastly happens, not to be revealed here, leaving Chester blinded, a double amputee, and minus an ear. We meet him in his hospital bed, being attended to by his supervising physician, Philip Cotton (Ephraim's father, Reed Birney). Dr. Cotton, who also tends to over-narrate, is an unremarkable fellow: middle-aged, a family man, devoted to his teenage daughter. He's also a man who learns his spouse is cheating on him and gradually becomes embroiled in an affair with his boss's wife. Which feels like a plot strain completely unrelated to the rest of the proceedings, and not one that particularly illuminates Cotton's character.

But the crux is the relationship between Chester and Cotton, and that's where things get interesting. The doctors expect Chester, shot through with and eventually weaned off morphine, to die. But he doesn't, and as he's given his tragic diagnosis, he refuses to believe it. He insists he can feel his missing hands, and as the bandages are taken off his eyes, he senses light, and then blurry shapes, though that's medically impossible. Then, as more tragedy engulfs Chester, his imagination starts running away with him: He's convinced that a pretty girl he saw at Penn Station just before the accident, a redhead running a newsstand, is visiting him at night. And there's some reality to that notion, but not at all the one he thinks–it's far more lurid. But his fantasies are healing. They're what keep him going.

And that's what Dougherty is getting at. With respect to the scenarios Chester is constructing for himself, how sustaining are they to him, and what should his doctor do about it? "It was a gift," Cotton explains to the audience, narrating yet again. "But a gift that kept Chester from perceiving the reality of his situation. So, by definition, Chester Bailey was delusional. And delusional people cannot be allowed to roam the streets. If there's one thing reality can't tolerate, it's competition." A compelling argument, and as Chester drifts farther away from the truth, he's arguably better off, and how Cotton should deal with it becomes murkier.

These are rich roles, but I just wish there were more interplay between these two and less face-front-and-declaim. When they do interact, the stage heats up, and when they're reduced to fisticuffs–not that Chester has fists–it's almost a great scene. Reed Birney, always a fine actor (and a Tony winner, for The Humans), perhaps underplays Cotton a bit, and Ephraim Birney perhaps overplays Chester. Cotton's not the most compelling personality, and maybe there's just not that much to play. And while we can certainly understand the helplessness and rage percolating in Chester, the younger Birney might find it more effective to dial it down a bit.

Director Ron Lagomarsino has the moods changing rather abruptly, but he's good at conveying time and place: It does feel like 1945, even with the occasional anachronism in the writing. (Donna Reed probably wouldn't be the first starlet on Chester's mind in 1945, and Jo Stafford's "Haunted Heart," playing on his bedside radio, dates to 1948.)

There's a needlessly elaborate set by John Lee Beatty, enveloping the stage in struts and arches meant to evoke the old Penn Station but not much resembling the real thing, and revealing a revolve near the end, one we don't need at all. Toni-Leslie James's costumes are modest and effective, and Brian MacDevitt's lighting achieves some subtle psychological cues.

I just implied above that Chester Bailey lacks great scenes. I was wrong: There's one, and it's the curtain call, where Reed steps back and Ephraim takes a bow, and the paternal pride that engulfs the stage is quite glorious to behold. The younger Birney needs to calibrate his effects with more exactitude, maybe, but he's well along his way. Acting dynasties, you see, still do happen, and at Chester Bailey, we're allowed to observe and celebrate a glowing one.

Chester Bailey
Through November 16, 2022
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., New York NY
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