NEW YORK - Who hasn't been tempted at least once to take something that isn't theirs, if it seems abandoned? Such moral and ethical dilemmas confronting two ordinary, working-class mothers beset by financial problems are the subject of Fly Me To the Moon, an edgy, hilarious new comedy written and directed by the Tony Award-nominated and Olivier Award-winning Irish playwright Marie Jones.
With black humor and thick, musical Belfast brogues, a pair of intense, comical female caregivers narrates the tale of the increasingly worst day of their lives, also enacting most of it, in a triumphantly funny production that opened Wednesday night at 59E59 Theaters as part of First Irish 2012.
Jones' popular Stones In His Pockets, which ran for four years in London's West End and was a hit on Broadway in 2001, had the same elements of bittersweet humor and surprising turns that confound caregivers Loretta (Tara Lynne O'Neill) and Frances (Katie Tumelty) in this tart new work.
Jones crafts scenarios that are just plausible enough to keep the story going, using her gift for creating believable characters and putting them into grim situations that can become wildly funny. She directs her latest work with a fine sense of pace, carefully ratcheting ordinary events to zany heights and creating madcap scenes enriched with wild-eyed, panicky conversations between the two women.
The temptations strewn in the path of these kindly but hapless caregivers result from the accidental morning death of their patient, Davy, a lonely elderly man who loved Frank Sinatra and gambling on the horses. Shocked by his death on their watch, they respond with a series of bad and increasingly farcical decisions, enmeshing themselves in an ever-more tangled web of deceit while reassuring each other that they're doing "what Davy would have wanted."
O'Neill and Tumelty give wonderfully comedic performances. O'Neill is woeful and expressively round-eyed as the more-fearful Loretta. Tumelty is crafty and vulpine, as pragmatic Frances begins by persuading Loretta that stealing a little of Davy's pension money "off the government" isn't really much of a crime.
But once they realize that Davy's horse has actually won this week, paying big money at 100-to-1, their relatively minor deception kicks into high gear. No way do we think they're going to leave that money "for the bookies," even though they live in a small town with nosy neighbors and must struggle to pretend Davy is still alive for most of the day.
The farce plays out in Davy's small, sparsely furnished bedroom, nicely designed by Niall Rea with accurate touches of late-life medical necessity. By the time Tumelty takes a slapstick spin in Davy's wheelchair, and Loretta belatedly sums up their misspent day so far with, "I could be arrested for theft, fraud, and murder and it's not even 4 o'clock," the women collapse into hysterical laughter that is repeated again and again by the appreciative audience.