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Rum and Vodka from Thunderclap Productions: As Hypnotizing as a Car Wreck

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The set-up:

Don't ever get between the Man (Andy Ingalls) and a pint of stout. You'll be steamrolled. Maybe punched out. The encounter will certainly be colorful. In Conor McPherson's (The Wier, The Seafarer) boozy monologue, written when he was a college student and soon to become a rising star among Irish playwrights, The Man regales us about a recent three-day bender after he freaked out at work and threw his computer through the window. His outburst was fueled by alcohol, but the Man keeps drinking -- it's his lifeblood. Mostly it's his anesthetic.

The execution:

Like a low-rent homage to James Joyce's ultimate contemporary odyssey, the play has McPherson's "hero" puking his way through hell, which just happens to be Dublin. "My life's one big sordid detail," he mumbles in a fog as he slumps over a battered table, still "pissed" from the night before. Ingalls gets it all down in wonderful, horrific detail: the stagger, the Guinness slur, the volcanic anger, the sudden tears, the edge. His close-cropped hair and scruff of a beard, his narrow frame, and his rumpled suit are his everyman's armor. He's there and not there. Ingalls gives a decidedly dangerous performance, and, although we want to hear his story, we sit back against our seats, for if we lean in too close we fear we'll get a drubbing. The Man has hit the wall hard.

"This was as good as things were going to get," he confesses when remembering his wife, two children, the mortgage, the dead-end civil service job. There's nowhere to go. But he goes anyway -- filling the weekend with booze, meaningless sex, drugs, and more booze. A lot more booze. When he comes to after passing out again, his friends tell him what he needs is a drink.

"Cure me," he yells in the crowded bar to the woman of his dreams, rich and Welsh Myfawny. But we know right away nobody's that good of a doctor. When he wakes up next to her in the morning, he can't even remember what she looks like, although he's staring at her and wondering what he saw in her in the first place. He flails through life, occasionally landing a solid punch or too, but he swings at air.

His nightmarish adventures are hypnotizing, like a car wreck. Why do we care about this self-immolating bloke who never takes responsibility for being a boorish hothead? McPherson makes us care by the weight of all the mundane details he puts into the writing. There's simple clarity in the descriptions, a regular guy's poetry. It pricks up our ears, and Ingalls has an easy mastery in saying it. He is everyman -- everyone who ever had a dream come crashing down; everyone who can't figure it out; everyone caught in Purgatory. "Why me?" he shouts to nobody in particular. Why not, McPherson answers.

The verdict:

Director Justin Doran shifts space with a conjurer's precision. The Man shoves the old table across the floor, and it becomes a bar. He slides it around, it becomes a bed. Aaron Alon's subtle sound design reinforces the constantly changing scenes, while Matthew Carter's lighting -- simple tripod instruments that fade to night blue or bar red -- is clinically appropriate.

On the prowl, Ingalls struts but always a little off-kilter. He can't see the world clearly through those bloodshot eyes. Just don't get in his way. His buddy's favorite hangover cure is rum and vodka on ice. "It awakens the dead," he preens. It does, but only for a weekend.

Conor McPherson's alcohol-tinged monologue runs June 8 and 9 at Wildfish Theatre, 1703D1 Post Oak Blvd. Purchase tickets online at the company website or call 1-800-494-8497. Tickets are $10 to $15.

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