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BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Everybody’s gotta go from something — so if heaven is a place where the thing that killed you gets trotted out for everything from first impressions to party invitations, it helps to have a cause of death that leaves them thirsting for more once the ice has been broken. And for a Belfast shipyard worker coming up on his centennial as an angel, nothing piques a stranger’s interest quite like name-dropping a certain passenger liner whose unexpected sinking has come to symbolize humanity’s hubris, heroism, and folly. “Boylan” is the last name of this chatty charmer, but he won’t mind if you think of him as “Jimmy Titanic.”
Written by Bernard McMullan as a wistful, witty, wry, and, on occasion, brutally damaging jab at the pull of disaster porn and the power of identity politics (as much in the afterlife as here on earth), “Jimmy Titanic” — the man, and the show, is consumed by the notion of litigating the less virtuous aspects of one’s defining moment. It’s a losing battle, but a fascinating one that McMullan seems to imply we’re doomed, tasked, or morally obligated to fight (sometimes all at once).
With the merest tilt of the head, flick of the wrist, or lilt in the voice, Colin Hamell (equally adept in contemplative and broadly comic mode) plays over 20 characters, many of whom went down with the ship to varying degrees of desperation and resignation. The dead are to the lucky ones, however, and not just because their untimely demise confers superstar status in heaven’s best discos and highly specialized online chatrooms.
Those who experienced the disaster on dry land (a New York Times editor penning a headline on the fly; a Belfast mayor desperate to deflect attention from the shipbuilding industry) have as many rationalizations as there are rivets on the Titanic — three million, we’re told, a number effectively hammered home by the set’s hellish red lighting, churning steam, steel beams, and rows and rows and rows of, yes, rivets. It’s here, in the bowels of the ship, that Jimmy the equilibrium-challenged angel (whose chafing wings keep “pullin’ to the right”) returns again and again, and of his own volition. What better place to question his actions as a friend, mentor, sailor, and shipbuilder?
Good thing, then, that our man Jimmy is such a crackerjack storyteller. Likably written and played, the audience can clearly see a depth of purpose the main character’s penchant for melancholy reflection won’t allow, at least not when the foundation begins to crack and the water starts to seep in. If Jimmy has his flaws, at least he’s in exceedingly good company for all eternity. Gabriel is a petty thief who delights in pranking recent arrivals to the pearly gates, God is a Dublin gangster with a serious smoking habit and the look of “a dodgy Santa,” and Steve Jobs is a recent arrival who gave heaven the Internet, but catches hell from Adam and Eve on account of that Apple logo. Some memories, it seems, are less pleasant to revisit than others.
“Jimmy Titanic” is directed by Carmel O’Reilly. Runtime: 75 min., no intermission. Through Feb. 18 in the W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre at the Irish Repertory Theatre (132 W. 22nd St., btw. Sixth & Seventh Aves.). Wed. at 3pm and 8pm; Thurs. at 7pm; Fri. at 8pm; Sat. at 3pm & 8pm; Sun. at 3pm. For tickets ($50), visit irishrep.org.