Culture clash certainly makes for good drama or comedy, but it takes insights into the particular cultures being clashed. With Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.'s world-premiere production of James McBride, the clash crashes on tired stereotypes of Irish people, dating from about the 1952 vintage of The Quiet Man.
The play, by Pittsburgh Playwrights artistic director Mark Clayton Southers, starts promisingly, with three old Irish guys complaining to each other -- humorous enough to count as budget Beckett. But all too soon we realize that it's part of an over-rigged lead-up to a painfully obvious "joke": The winner of an Irish literary award is an African American, which somehow is a problem for the Irish guys, because they're white.
Huh? Artsy types in a very arts-oriented city like Galway would be surprised at the concepts of black people and of black artists? Plus, they harbor some sort of fixation on the 1982 heavyweight boxing championship between Gerry Cooney, a white guy from Long Island, and Larry Holmes, a black guy from Eastern Pennsylvania. Of course, there is racism in Ireland -- but Southers' Irish behave more like typical American bigots. Nasty racist behaviors from various allegedly Irish characters inform an increasingly incredible plot, which culminates in a nicely choreographed boxing match before everyone lives happily ever after.
James McBride is a play of parts, some of which are painful to recall and some of which approach the glorious. Roger Jerome and Joshua Elijah Reese, abetted by E. Bruce Hill, engage in a "competition" of naming Irish and African-American poets respectively, occasionally punctuated with skillful yet heartfelt recitations of several well-chosen poems. The scene doesn't do a lot to further the story, but it's wonderful to listen to and watch, and it provides most of the character growth.
The best thing about the play is Reese himself, in the title role. McBride is the only character fully drawn, and Reese fills out the dimensionality. Jerome, Hill, Jay Keenan, James Keenan and Theo Allyn strive mightily with their stunted characters, and manage to be entertaining more often than credible. Applause too to fight coordinator Randy Kovitz and to director Andrew Paul (of Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, so one would hope that he's working on repairs to the most egregious misrepresentations of Irish culture).
It may well be that an African American's interaction with an ancient Irish poetry society would make for a good show: the clash of literary cultures, of generations, of other differences to be explored. At this draft stage, James McBride isn't there yet.
James McBride continues through Sept. 30. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co., 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412 394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org