Loosening Martyrs’ Nooses

Loosening Martyrs’ Nooses

A ribald jounce of a show aims its rapier at Irish rebel worship

Never mug a Princeton man. He may get up, lick his wounds and write something like:

How to make a suspect talk?

So many tacks to use!

Some go with charm and flattery

Now there’s a clever ruse!

And if you find you’re at a loss

Here’s a sure route to a gain:

Turn off the cameras, lock the doors,

It’s time to bring the pain.

They use acid down in Chile.

It’s the cattle prod in Iran.

I’ve heard rumors that in Uruguay

Dogs are trained to rape a man!

Don’t ever get me started on

What happens in Peru

Can you imagine

The things I’ll do to you?

That’s the “Torture” song from the jolly little show that’s now in previews toward its March 31 world premiere at the Rattlestick Playwrights’ Theater on Waverly Place, words by Sean Cunningham (he who was mugged), music by Michael Friedman.

Here’s a bit from the “Good Man” song, as delivered by a sweet young female character named Feather:

Please give me your attention.

Knowledge must be relayed.

Good men aren’t hard to find,

They just were never made.

Argue with me all you like

That’s still the truth of it.

I’ve been with every type of man

And I’ve had it with their shit.

How can you break my heart?

Why don’t we count the ways?

There’s mistreating and there’s cheating

Then it turns out you’re all gays.

The “Torture” song has a certain unplanned relevance to what’s emerging daily from the Pentagon and the CIA, but in this musical it’s sung by a British policewoman named Victoria just before she tells an Irish mother to run for it, before shooting Mum dead.

And Victoria is a rather gentle character compared to Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) gloating over his troops’ sectarian rampage at Wexford where “our soldiers rounded up a large number of Irish Catholic children” and “went into battle, each soldier [using] a child as a shield, so that before the Wexford residents could kill an English soldier, they’d have to murder an Irish child…”

“I’ll admit,” says the lord protector of England, “the English did not elevate genocide to the art form attained by the Nazis, but give us credit for trying it first.”

By now you may be wanting to know the name of this extraordinary rigadoon. It is, in full, “God Hates the Irish: A comedy abut things one shouldn’t laugh at, or The Ballad of Armless Johnny.”

Bertolt Brecht himself would envy that title.

Armless Johnny. Sean is Irish for John. Twenty-nine-year-old, scruffy-bearded Sean Cunningham, who said his people come from County Kerry, or maybe not, sat in a diner on Seventh Avenue and told how Armless Johnny came to be. Next to Cunningham sat 29-year-old, smooth-faced Michael Friedman, the music guy, who said, dryly, “I am not Irish.”

“In Princeton I went out drinking one night,” said Cunningham, “and got mugged very badly. I mean, what are the odds of getting mugged in Princeton? This was 1997. Two violent things happened in Princeton that year. One was my mugging. The other was a bank robbery in which one of the robbers got shot. I was actually in my little e-mail room when a [campus-wide] message came in: ‘If you’re reading this, don’t go out.’

“I don’t remember the actual mugging, but I got stomped on and my nose was pushed out of plumb. If you saw ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ it was like that.”

It required a much larger bandaging than that sported by Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown” after Roman Polanski has carved up Nicholson’s nose.

“Everybody was looking at me.”

“I didn’t know any of this until this minute,” said composer Friedman.

In Cork that summer, when people were still staring at him, Cunningham wrote the outline of a play about a young man everybody stared at because he had no arms. Stared at and mistreated, starting with his dad.

All fathers love their sons

Yet deeply hate those boys as well.

After all, lads warm the heart

And then put you through hell…

Each boy wants to kill his dad,

Fathers all must die.

It’s nothing more than nature’s way,

Freud would never lie.

As it happens, Cunningham’s father died when Sean was 2. (His mother, Kathleen Oechler, is a guide at the Princeton Art Institute.) As it further happens, “God Hates the Irish” started out as a play, not a musical.

“I’ve ruined it,” Friedman murmured.

From Princeton, Cunningham went on to Yale Drama School, where his classmate Will Frears introduced him to Friedman.

“An arranged marriage,” further murmured Friedman, who did his undergraduate work at Harvard.

How do they turn out the songs?

“He sends me some lyrics and I then write a song and send it to him and he yells at me and I yell at him…,” Friedman began.

“All things considered, it’s been rather painless,” Cunningham concluded.

All things considered, “God Hates the Irish” is also, to quote Mike Nichols, who attended a reading of it at Rattlesnake last year, “theater as it should be—daring, subversive and violently funny.” It reminded him, Nichols said, of “Candide.” It reminds this script reader of Paul Green’s “Johnny Johnson” and Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun” as filtered through “Alice in Wonderland.”

Murder, rape, masturbation, emasculation, mutilation, fornication, cunnilingus, suicide, torture, bigotry? Yes, funny.

RUSSELL (a cop): I’ll talk about anything I bloody well want to, and don’t think for an instant I won’t. It’s true what they say about the Irish… nothing but greedy bloodsuckers who have all the money in the world!

VICTORIA (a woman cop): That’s what they say about the Jews, actually…

RUSSELL: Oh yeah, I remember now. The Jews are greedy bloodsuckers. The Irish are just plain stupid.

VICTORIA: You’re thinking of the Poles.

RUSSELL: I mean, the Irish are filthy!

VICTORIA: That’s the French.

RUSSELL: The Irish fuck sheep!

VICTORIA: That’s the Scots, or possibly the Welsh. Or maybe the Greeks…

RUSSELL: The Irish are a swarthy people who think of nothing except stamp collecting.

VICTORIA: I don’t have a clue whom you’re slurring.

RUSSELL: Stereotyping is harder than it looks.

This show, Cunningham said, “provokes either laughter or anger.” Will Frears directed a classroom performance of it at Yale, and he’s the director now at Rattlestick. In fact, he brought Cunningham and Friedman to Rattlestick. The only holdover from the Yale cast is Billy Thompson, who plays Armless Johnny. The other actors are Lisa Altomaro, Remy Auberjonois, Anne Bobby, Anna Camp and James A. Stephens.

Why armless Johnny and not, for instance, legless Johnny?

“He can’t be legless,” Friedman began. “It makes blocking impossible.”

“Or headless,” Cunningham concluded.

“God Hates the Irish” climaxes, if that’s the word, in a ballad that begins:

You can’t have jazz without Charlie Mingus.

Here is a song about cunnilingus…

“I played it for a friend of mine from school,” Friedman explained. “She sent an MP3 recording of it to her sister. The sister sent it to their mother. One thing led to another, and now women now all over the country are listening to the ‘Cunnilingus Song.’”

Remember Feather? She could tell you that you don’t have to be armless.