Sammy (Aidan Jordan) sits at the bar, drunk, dishevelled and ignored by a younger generation getting on with their ghetto lives. Worn by the erosion of a life, he’s an old man who says very little as he slumps in his stool getting free drink and lodgings from this neighbourhood dive bar which is the focal point of the drama. At times he perks up and his eponymous observation, “In Arabia we’d all be kings,” sets the tone of this play in which a large cast are busy figuring out that they aren’t going to escape the ghetto cycle.
This year the playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play Between Riverside and Crazy. It caught the zeitgeist with its portrayal of the shooting of a black undercover cop by a white officer who claimed he mistook him for a criminal. In Arabia We’d All be Kings is an earlier work that gives us an insight into the development of the playwright’s socially conscious theatre.
Set in Hell’s Kitchen the play follows twelve characters embroiled in a familiar battle at the coalface of poverty, drugs and crime. The backdrop is a Manhattan in flux. The city at the turn of the century is on a precipice; gentrification and the ‘broken windows’ crime clean-up enacted by Mayor Rudy Giuliani are about to sweep this cast of down-and-outs up-state in order for New York’s property boom to continue unabated.
The play was first directed and staged in 1999 by Philip Seymour Hoffman and his LAByrinth theatre company.
The bar is the main setting and the audience sits on either side of it facing each other. Opposite the bar counter, with its array of spirits and a poster of Italia ’90, is a big, Pink-Floyd-esque red brick wall with graffiti strewn across it. Behind the audience on one side are childish drawings; these distract me early in the play but as the action unfolds their loss of innocence symbolism becomes clear.
The main protagonist is Lenny (James Gilroy) who tries to fit seamlessly back into a life that isn’t there for him after a six year stint in prison. Inevitably things have changed and his old girlfriend Daisy (Emma Long) is now dating the suit wearing bar owner Jake (Rob Harrington). He is onto a winner as gentrification moves in and he’s left fielding offers for his bar from prospective buyers.
Lenny can’t get a job as we see him interview for a role distributing fliers and soon he’s back committing petty crime on the streets.
Chickie (Siofra O’Meara) and Skank (Kyle Hixon) are a young couple desperate for a fix and both quickly turn tricks for cash. Their performances are filled with vacant stares and strung-out desperation as they slump into the societal traps placed by Guirgis.
There’s an intensity of action in the well choreographed fight scenes and the milling about in the streets which is the highlight of this Some Yank’s Theatre Company production. What the play lacks in nuance it makes up for in the ample opportunities for the actors to embody various drug infused characters and they are all on point with their New York accents, credit to dialect coach Gavin O’Donoghue for this.
The play itself is too worthy for its own characters’ good as their stories are left unresolved in favour of an overall indictment of an America where the upward social mobility so lauded in the American Dream is in short supply. Even a Pulitzer Prize winner has to have a foundation and this play is heavy handed in its ‘Just another brick in the wall’ critique.
Director: Liam Hallahan
Set Design: Sarah Foley
Runs until July 11th in Players Theatre, Trinity.