Tir Na uncorks a tart, irreverent ‘Return of the Winemaker’
SOMERVILLE — Heaven knows Christmas can be a time of family stress. So imagine the tension when the holiday finds two married couples (one of whom resides at the aforementioned celestial address) vying for custody of a beloved son.
Moreover, it’s not just any son, but Jesus himself who is at the center of an epic struggle in “Return of the Winemaker,’’ an antic comedy by Bernard McMullan now receiving its world premiere at Davis Square Theatre under the direction of Carmel O’Reilly.
If you have a high tolerance for irreverence, you’re unlikely to repent seeing this enjoyably absurd and absurdly enjoyable show, which is presented by Tir Na Productions.
Here’s the setup: It’s the present day in a small Irish village whose most famous resident, Jesus (Derry Woodhouse), is about to turn 40 on, when else, Christmas Day. Jesus is still living with his parents, the Joyces, Paddy (Colin Hamell) and Peggy (Nancy E. Carroll). A fundamentally loving pair, though Paddy is as irascible as they come, they have raised Jesus from the moment Mary materialized at their pub, gave birth on the bar, and promptly disappeared.
Though depicted here as not the brightest bulb, Jesus has made himself indispensable to the village because of his gift for turning water into wine. In fact, the local economy pretty much rests on Jesus, so when he suddenly announces that God (Stephen Russell) is calling him home to “up above,’’ the townspeople panic, especially profit-minded Paddy.
The notion of Jesus as an exploited laborer is an intriguing one, and the greedy self-absorption of the human population he lives among certainly comes through in “Return of the Winemaker.’’ McMullan’s darkly comic parable might have a sharper edge if it also nodded to the demagogic political uses to which the name of Jesus has so often been put. But the Tir Na production finds a satisfying measure of theatrical gold inside the boundaries within which the playwright has chosen to operate.
A former TV journalist in Ireland who now lives in New York, McMullan is the author of “Jimmy Titanic,’’ presented locally by Tir Na a couple of years ago in a production that also starred Hamell and also featured God as a character. In “Return of the Winemaker,’’ the Almighty is attired in an Elvis-in-Vegas jumpsuit and periodically strums on a guitar while singing tunes, written by McMullan, with titles like “Water Into Wine’’ and “The Second Coming.’’
However, God is now in such sharp decline that he needs his son to help out with the family business, as it were. (He has that, at least, in common with Paddy). God’s wife, Marilyn — yes, the supreme being has a wife, portrayed by Carroll — firmly explains to Paddy that “there comes a time in all our lives when we must take on a little more responsibility . . . [Jesus] will be taking on some of his father’s work and he won’t be coming back.’’
Does this nonnegotiable stance deter Paddy? It does not. Feverishly brainstorming ways to keep Jesus on earth, Paddy eventually comes up with a scheme that is inspired by the, um, theological knowledge of a whiskey-addled nun (Carroll again) and requires the assistance of a comely village lass (Sara Fraser). The plan puts Paddy on a collision course with the formidable Marilyn.
All this is executed with zestful high spirits and expert timing. Director O’Reilly ensures that the disparate pieces of “Return of the Winemaker’’ click into place, sustaining a rapidly eventful pace through sudden shifts in location and chronology without sacrificing clarity.
Hamell, who is also Tir Na’s producing artistic director, is a flat-out riot as the sputtering, calculating Paddy. We can almost see the wheels turning in the pubkeeper’s head as he alternately fumes and wheedles (asking if Jesus can come back to earth on weekends; telling God “I’m a big fan of your work’’) while trying to undo this unexpected reversal of fortune delivered from on high.
Carroll, one of Boston’s most respected stage performers, is her usual sublime self in all three of her roles, especially Marilyn, whom the actress endows with a combination of seen-it-all serenity and don’t-tread-on-me steeliness. As God, the lanky Russell transitions deftly from the cocksure cool of a lounge singer to a cloud of befuddlement. Woodhouse’s Jesus radiates the endearingly goofy, good-hearted innocence of a kid who never grew up. For all the humor, there’s something touching in the character’s efforts to keep the peace between two sets of parents whom he loves equally.
All in all, “Return of the Winemaker’’ is a bit of an unexpected holiday blessing.
RETURN OF THE WINEMAKER
Play by Bernard McMullan
Directed by Carmel O’Reilly
Presented by Tir Na Productions at Davis Square Theatre, Somerville, through Dec. 20. Tickets $25. www.tirnatheatre.org