WATERTOWN — God has been many things on stage, but not, to my knowledge, a chain smoker. And though I can recall a long-ago student production of an English mystery play at the Loeb Experimental Theatre in which God forgot his lines and the Archangel Gabriel had to cue him, I don’t ever remember Gabriel demanding that Heaven-bound souls leave their coins and watches with him as they pass through the pearly gates. God and Gabriel are just two of some 20 delightfully outrageous characters — all portrayed by Colin Hamell — in Bernard McMullan’s darkly funny “Jimmy Titanic,” which after outings in New York and Philadelphia and at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater has come to the Arsenal Center for the Arts, in a Tír Na Theatre production helmed by former Súgán Theatre artistic director Carmel O’Reilly.
The play, which Hamell (who is also Tír Na’s artistic director) suggested to McMullan, starts out in heaven but flashes back to Belfast, where R.M.S. Titanic was built (and where McMullan was a journalist before becoming a playwright), and to the ship itself on the fateful night it struck an iceberg and went down. The primary characters are Belfast shipbuilders Jimmy Boylan and Tommy Mackey, who were on the Titanic’s maiden voyage. The title “Jimmy Titanic” is a reminder that most of the nearly 1,500 passengers who went down with the ship were not Astors and Guggenheims but crew members and poor emigrants looking for a better life in America.
At the Arsenal Center’s Black Box Theatre, Hamell, who like Jimmy is a native of County Meath, spends the entire 80-minute show alone on an empty stage, wearing a collarless white shirt and a gray vest, with no evidence of a watch on his wrist or coins in his pockets. He does have a pair of invisible wings that a very fey Gabriel is instructing him in how to use (“You have to get the rhythm of the flappin’ ”), even though he admits, “We don’t really have wings up here in heaven.”
So, what does heaven have? How about discos and nightclubs? And online dating? (Yes, heaven is on the Internet.) The Titanic victims are celebrities; the girls, Jimmy tells us, “love us Titanic boys.” Of course, there are also JD (just deceased) ladies with smoked salmon on their breath who are wondering what happened to their luggage. And Jimmy is a little queasy about girls who’ve been in heaven for 700 years and died of the bubonic plague. He’s more comfortable with a San Francisco earthquake survivor, though he’s not sure he wants to spend eternity — a “long time,” he notes — with her.
As quirkily engaging as McMullan’s heaven is, Belfast and Titanic are more moving. Tommy is a Belfast native, and it’s from him that we get a sense of how the Titanic was built, the riveter squad running back and forth, 3 million rivets in all. We also hear from the lord mayor of Belfast, R.J. McMordie, who asserts that the manufacture of the ship will not be called into question. On the Titanic itself, Jimmy remembers Tommy showing his cousin Mikey how to shovel coal (atmosphere provided by Tyler Lambert-Perkins’s red lighting), four-hour shifts, two per day. And he recalls the Spanish-speaking emigrant who tried to get his wife and child into a lifeboat and was shot for his pains. We also hear how Jimmy and Tommy found their way into the library and discovered John Jacob Astor and Jacques Futrell smoking cigars and sipping brandy after having put their wives into the lifeboats.
The period and otherwise appropriate pre-“curtain” recorded music includes the Irish Rovers’ “The Titanic,” Laura Smith’s “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” the Belfast children’s song “I’ll Tell Me Ma When I Get Home,” and Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” At the Arsenal Center, though, Colin Hamell is the real entertainer.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.