Hard on the heels of Pope Francis' visit and admonition to Wall Street on the perils of unbridled capitalism, the Irish Repertory Theatre is offering a parable on the wages of greed in The Quare Land, a play by John McManus that is both funny and a vehicle for a tour de force for the brilliant Peter Maloney.
Maloney is Hugh Pugh, a nonagenarian farmer who owns 9 cows and 51 acres in an isolated part of County Cavan near the Northern Ireland border. When we first meet him, he is soaking in the first bath he's had in four years, listening to Bobby Darin sing "Splish Splash" on a vinyl LP, and fishing bottles of porter cooling in the toilet through a system of pulleys he operates from the tub.
Enter Rob McNulty, a suit with a briefcase and a cell who has made his way to Hugh's isolated farmhouse to try to buy a five-acre parcel of Hugh's land so he can expand a 9-hole golf course at his resort hotel in adjoining County Leitrim into an 18-hole one. Rob has come to Hugh because Hugh hasn't answered any of his letters. In fact, Hugh hasn't opened any of his mail in a lot longer than he's gone without a bath.
It turns out the reason for Hugh indulging in a rare scrub is because he's had some bad news: his elder alcoholic brother is coming for a visit. "I'm 90 and he's 91," Hugh says. "We're both in the departure lounge."
Before he can discuss the land deal, Rob must listen to Hugh's life story, or at least the part of it where he took a trip to London with his mate Artie Lee and lost all his money on the ferry back to Ireland. When Rob does get his offer on the table, or bathtub, Hugh denies he even owns the five acres Rob wants to buy.
A search through the years of Hugh's unopened mail, however, discovers an old letter that does, in fact, deed the acreage in question to him along with an apology from Artie Lee for robbing him of his life savings on the ferry. But Hugh is dismissive of Rob's plan to expand his 9-hole course to 18.
"What do you want with 18 holes?" Hugh asks. "That's just being greedy. The greed is a whore, lad. That's what has fellows killing and ripping off their fellows. You don't see me being greedy."
"If you had more cows and were making more money, you'd become greedy too," Rob counters. "That's the way of it."
In fact, The Quare Land is pretty much a shaggy dog homily about the nature of greed, using a text loosely based on the biblical parable of rich man who planned to build even bigger barns to hold his abundance only to have God demand his soul that very night.
In the expert hands of Maloney, aided by an excellent Rufus Collins as Rob, the sermon is one of broad humor. When Rob finally mentions a rather astronomical figure he's willing to pay for those five acres that Hugh didn't even know he owned, you can almost see the euro signs light up in Maloney's eyes.
At first he can hardly take it in. Then he proves Rob a prophet. Using his bath toys of a sheep and a squeaky pig to negotiate, Hugh begins to gradually up the price he wants for the land, then starts adding on some perks, including a free pass at the bar at Rob's hotel for himself and his brother and a slip at the resort's marina. When Rob points out Hugh doesn't even own a boat, that's thrown into the demands as a signing bonus.
Maloney is one of the theater's treasures and his befuddled and cantankerous curmudgeon slowly turning into an avaricious wheeler-dealer is a joy to watch. Sitting the play's entire 90 minutes in a bubble-bath and using only facial expressions he makes Hugh an eccentric charmer it's hard not to like.
Collins is a selfless straight man to Maloney's Hugh and manages to achieve a measure of pity for what he's going through. Smartly directed by Ciaran O'Reilly, The Quare Land is a delightful start to the Irish Rep's new season.