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Review: Charming Billy

Alice McDermott’s National Book Award-winning novel about a tragic Irish-American charmer is adapted for the stage.

Star rating: ✩✩✩½ stars out of four

We are gathered here to mourn the passing of Billy Lynch. It’s altogether fitting that we congregate in a bar. Billy, God love him, lived and died drunk. But so beloved was our Billy that his pals at work covered for him when he never quite made it back after a boozy lunch, his wife stood by him, and his best friend Dennis listened to his teary ramblings when Billy called in his cups in the middle of the night. What was it about Billy Lynch that inspired such love and loyalty? Was he a poetic lost soul or a charming user who disappointed everyone who relied on him?

Charming Billy, Bethesda author Alice McDermott’s award-winning novel, has been adapted for the stage by Round House Theatre producing artistic director Blake Robison. The play is a clever construct—the reminiscences of Billy’s friends and family are interwoven with flashbacks from his life. The appearance of Billy himself in these vignettes—played with the perfect mix of humor, pathos, and poetry by David Whalen—brings the mourners’ stories to life.

There’s a surprise in Billy’s story—but it’s no surprise to those of us who read McDermott’s wonderful book. Knowing what happens is a common problem readers have whenever they see a beloved book adapted for stage or screen. Robison’s play doesn’t have the power of McDermott’s novel, but it’ a successful effort largely because of the strength of the performers.

Billy’s long-suffering wife, Maeve (Julie-Ann Elliott), shines when she recalls how she orchestrated encounters with Billy until he took notice of her. Amy McWilliams is delightful as Maeve’s neighbor Bridie who doles out endless and enthusiastic sympathy.

Dennis (John Feltch) is more enigmatic. In many ways, this is as much his story as Billy’s. He moves between the past and the present in the play, but his character is never fully developed. This may not be Feltch’s fault. Compared to the charismatic, mercurial Billy, Dennis is destined to appear steady but stolid.

Robison and his crew are true to the ambiance of McDermott’s book. The mourners meet in a dark Irish bar with pitchers of beer on the table and music of the old country playing in the background. The middle-aged ladies have the right tight perms and church dresses. The references to Catholic faith and Irish roots abound. It all rings true.

Charming Billy runs for a well-paced 90 minutes without intermission. It’s not an epic work, but it is a gem.

At Round House Theatre through February 27. Buy tickets ($25 to $60) on Round House’s Web site.

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