Review: 'Falling Upward' at El Portal Theatre
With a pint o' whimsy and a barrel o' blarney, "Falling Upward" clogs its way around the El Portal Theatre. Ray Bradbury's comedic fable about a rural Irish village pub is certainly idiosyncratic, yet director Tim Byron Owen and a large, resolute ensemble headed by Pat Harrington give this Gaelic crowd-pleaser their brogue-laden all.
Inspired by Bradbury's observances in Ireland while writing the "Moby Dick" screenplay for John Huston, "Falling Upward" debuted in 1988 at the Melrose Theatre. Its 2001 Theatre West staging led to a smash Falcon Theatre run, and in 2007, Owen re-envisioned the piece into the version seen here.
Set in Kilcock, County Kildare, "Upward" centers on Heeber Finn's Pub (beautifully realized in designer Jeff G. Rack's sectional set). "No Women, No Fighting, No Swearing," says the chalkboard; be assured that brawny Heeber (Mik Scriba) will enforce the rules. As we enter, the cast offers traditional Irish airs onstage, until narrator Garrity (Harrington) arrives, our conduit to a place "where anything can happen, and it always does."
Thereafter, "Falling Upward" doesn't unfold so much as meander across scattered episodes -- a cacophonous traffic wreck (courtesy of sound designer Reid Woodbury Jr.), the hilarious reaction to a Anglo-Irish wine connoisseur's funeral, a cinema sprinting competition. Embroidering these vignettes are details of character, as when Father Leary (Walter Beery) drops in for a nip and argues the distinction between "the same" and "the usual."
The banter and bluster peaks in Act 2, when flamboyant tourists arrive, headed by dulcet-toned David Snell Orkney (James Horan). Their function is more poetic than dramatic, the tolerant message they monger hardly subtle, but it nonetheless hushes the house.
Owen valiantly brings this mood piece to life in a venue one size too large for the intended intimacy, running his forces up and down the aisles, turning live players loose on fiddles, pipes and drums. Harrington's sporadic line struggles pale against his unforced, endearing connection with the audience. His colleagues are all fine, with Abbott Alexander's avid sprinter, David Evans Brandt and Michael Gough's ripe-voiced crooners and Matt Hoffman's inquisitive hotel porter among the standouts.
Yes, sometimes they must declaim to be audible. Moreover, Bradbury culled "Falling Upward" from several short works, and it shows. There isn't really a dramatic spine, just idealized recollections closer in spirit to "The Quiet Man" than the postmodern grit of a Martin McDonagh or a Conor McPherson. And that unabashed affection is easily its strongest suit.
--David C. Nichols
"Falling Upward," El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays (Pre-show entertainment starts 20 minutes before curtain time). Ends April 5. $30-$40. (323) 960-5773. Running time: 2 hours.
Caption: From left: Walter Beery, Pat Harrington and Mik Scriba in "Falling Upward." Credit: Ed Krieger