'Appendage' by Derek Murphy, presented by c21 Theatre Company. Photo: Neil Harrison Photography

'Appendage' by Derek Murphy, presented by c21 Theatre Company. Photo: Neil Harrison Photography

'Appendage' by Derek Murphy presented by c21 Theatre Company. Photo: Neil Harrison Photography

'Appendage' by Derek Murphy presented by c21 Theatre Company. Photo: Neil Harrison Photography

How do we mourn? Why do we mourn? What do we mourn about? These questions lurk lugubriously in Derek Murphy’s Appendage, a two-hander set in a simply featured apartment, somewhere in New York City. Both protagonists, it turns out, are mourning the same woman. For Peter, it’s his wife Jill, whom he husbanded indifferently. He sinks single malt as though it’s soda water, drowning memories.

Memories, it seems, have driven Jack delusional and frantic. He was Jill’s lover (one of many, apparently). He loved her to literal distraction, but fell short in the physical department. Now he talks to the dead Jill (who died of leukemia) in his imagination, glaring obsessively at the Modigliani-style portrait of her displayed in Peter’s living room. Jack thinks Jill has told him to murder Peter, and fakes a traffic accident to get into the apartment, where the two men’s stories begin to unravel.

Unusual as these plot accoutrements seem, they’re in many ways incidental. What Murphy’s play gradually reveals is the extraordinary, pent-up inadequacies of male coping mechanisms. These men argue, snap, swear lavishly, and verbally batter one another because they’re both unhappy, but have no idea how to communicate their unhappiness. Their lingua franca is the lash-out, fuelled by a whisky bottle: peaceably mediated, post-conflict stress resolution this decidedly isn’t.

To repeat the question, though - what are they actually mourning? Their own dysfunctionality, is the readiest answer. Jack squirms as he recalls Jill laughing at his modestly proportioned penis, and his failure to satisfy her sexually. Peter glibly comforts himself that his wife inevitably came back to him after her many dalliances. He doesn’t want to remember properly, or to learn anything; Jack is simply incapable of halting his obsessive stream of pained recollection. The deafening gunshots that end each half are, in this context, violent efforts to full-stop the pain of reminiscence, and blast the untidiness of the characters’ inter-relationships to permanent oblivion. Again, a very masculine solution.

Nick Hardin’s bluff, truculently defensive Peter (business-suited) is a performance of high quality, expertly paced and cadenced. A New Yorker by birth, he’s got the gumball dialogue to a tee: you quickly forget you’re actually listening to an actor. Stephen Kelly (black jeans and T-shirt, with a hoody) wisely underplays the simmering psychoses of Irish Jack, morphing to a sinister Lee Harvey Oswald modality when cocking his hip-holstered revolver for action.

Derek Murphy’s leanly honed, incisive script succeeds particularly in making the apparent inconsequentiality of much that Peter and Jack say to one another seem strangely ineluctable. The time flew by – always a sign of tight writing, with no flab left for filleting. The set – a door, drinks cabinet, red leather sofa, black recliner, the Jill painting – is minimal, but it’s a plus-point to the play and to the acting that you don’t catch yourself questioning whether there shouldn’t be a little more to it. The lighting dips down twice to home in strikingly on the portrait, as Jack’s obsessing spirals, but otherwise suggests a standard domestic interior.

Appendage is play-billed as a “dark comedy”, but there’s more dark than comedy in Derek Murphy’s cumulatively compelling take on the emotionally stunted male psyche. By the end you feel like screaming at both characters to go find themselves a feminine side to play with. The problem being, of course, that they unfortunately haven’t really got one.

Terry Blain

  • Review
  • Theatre

Appendage by Derek Murphy

15 - 30 June, 2012 (on tour)

Produced by c21 Theatre Company
In the MAC, Belfast

Directed by Peter Quigley

Set Builder: Gerard Cooke

With: Stephen Kelly, Nick Hardin