Consider the opening scenario of An Irish Curse: A priest, a jock, a fat man, a gay man, and an Irish immigrant walk into a church basement. Yes, the play begins like a joke, and not the good kind of joke. It's more like a joke of pre-P.C. standup comics, the kind that plays on cultural stereotypes as it lurches toward a crass punch line. When the jock tells the group he has a small penis, the bad joke practically writes itself.
But there are valid reasons playwright Martin Casella's The Irish Curse has developed a cult following since it premiered at a fringe festival in 2005. The show has quietly become so popular that the curse — the implication that men of Irish descent are slighted in the genital gene pool — now has a definition in the Urban Dictionary.
Seeing the play's superb mounting at Mosaic Theatre, it's clear that The Irish Curse is not an underground fluke. It's a lot richer than its setup, and its characters never fall into their seemingly prescribed stereotypes. They earn your sympathies and warm your heart, while making you laugh harder than any night in recent South Florida theater history.
The setting is a basement meeting room at a Catholic church on a stormy New York night, where a weekly support group for underendowed men takes place. The participants include Rick (Ryan Didato), a young playboy studying sports medicine, who compensates for his shortness by stuffing his crotch with jocks and socks; Stephen (Shane R. Tanner), a gay police officer and self-proclaimed sex addict whose diminutive problem has led to an emotionally detached love life; and Joseph (Ken Clement), a genteel lawyer from Savannah whose wife left him for a matter of size.
These three are the regulars in the small group of tiny-dicked congregants, presided over by Father Kevin Shaunessy (Barry Tarallo), whom we find out has his own reasons for shepherding this group of shattered souls. This week, Father Kevin has brought a guest: Kieran (Todd Allen Durkin), a meek and inquisitive Irishman who arrives at the church with disheveled hair and a sopping raincoat. His first time in the group, Kieran probes the other men about their personal histories, prompting them to open up more than they ever have before about their genetic disability.
The story oscillates between deep psychological pathos and knee-slapping, metaphor-heavy mirth (flaccid members are invariably compared to baby corn, bottle caps, and cocktail wieners). When the conversation degenerates into personal attacks, it's obvious that all the men are deeply flawed and deeply human, and each has his own steel-trapped moral code.
The play's relentless focus on the male sex organ has led it to be inaccurately likened to a testosterone-filled version of The Vagina Monologues, though it's simultaneously about a lot more and a lot less than that feminist manifesto. Curse lacks the power or the desire to shock, confront, and challenge, as Monologues continues to do. But this breezy comedy nonetheless addresses issues far beyond its core subject, such as faith, fidelity, anxiety, compassion, community, the American Dream, and even war in the Middle East. In a blustery rant, Joseph links the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and all wars, for that matter — to their leaders' cock sizes. A new addendum to the monologue even diagnoses John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, the Tea Party, and other sufferers of what John Avlon calls Obama Derangement Syndrome with envy for the president's presumably potent penis. The rant doesn't have much intellectual heft, but it's a delight to hear.
Under guest director Avi Hoffman's sure hand, artistic director Richard Jay Simon couldn't have corralled a better ensemble. Ken Clement has a blast as Joseph. Barry Tarallo brings a poignant grace to Father Kevin, whose personal story is the play's most tragic. And Durkin is his usual stunning self — his character's breakdown is flawlessly performed, and his Irish accent is on point throughout.
This, of all shows, requires a cast this committed. It takes actors so comfortable with their nether regions that they are willing to inhabit these desperate, short-changed men with complete conviction. There's a certain bravery in accepting these parts, and Mosaic's quintet more than passes the test. Though I'm sure each and every one of them will be the first to report that, you know... it's only a play.