Howie Lee lives with his parents and wants you to know that he is not queer. In sweat pants and a denim jacket, alone onstage, he gestures like a shadow boxer and tells about chasing and beating up a "faggot" called the Rookie. The fierce action is all verbal, emitted in bursts. "Up, shower, freezin' -- cold enough to stop me heart. Love it." Or, later, down the pub, "Ahh. Flood from me cock. Piss. A nice one." In real life, of course, nobody talks like this for 45 minutes. But you get used to it, just as you get used to the heavy Irish slang.
The Rookie, or Rookie Lee (no relation to Howie), has scabies. The scabies infected a mattress, and now Howie's friend Peaches has it. Peaches and Howie give the Rookie a "batterin'," and the story, thanks to O'Rowe's language, is as vivid as a film. The staccato style works best when the action picks up. "Movin'. Movin'," says Howie, giving chase. "Down the lane he goes!" When they catch him, it's "three hearts poundin' loud, three lungs -- pairs of lungs -- suckin' louder, suckin' hard."
Oh. Did I mention that Howie is not queer?
The second monologue is by the Rookie, who in fact isn't queer at all. He wears a square-cut leather coat and polished shoes, all black; he might be slick and vaguely effeminate, but his luck with women is good: "Break hearts and hymens, I do." He tells a different story than Howie, sometime after the chase. A vicious thug named Ladyboy is after him for 700 quid because the Rookie accidentally knocked over a bucket of expensive fighting fish. Since the events of Act 1 Howie and the Rookie have become tentative friends. Howie buys ointment for the Rookie's scabies, and saves his "bacon" with Ladyboy. The roles reverse: Now Howie becomes the hunted quarry and gets thrashed in an epically savage (and strangely exaggerated) battle with Ladyboy.
The play is like Success in its paired voices, one belonging to a blustering, dominant idiot and one to a guy who feels victimized. The different points of view and sudden role reversals give both novel and play the same jagged puzzle structure. But where Success is about fork-tongued young Englishmen in post-'60s London, Howie deals with the violent and timeless Dublin underclass. O'Rowe disavows any influence from Joyce or Dylan Thomas, claiming he's never read those guys, but I'll bet he's read his Amis.
And his Mamet. The strong, spare language and damaged male characters could be transplanted from American Buffalo. I just hope none of these Mamet-influenced playwrights from across the Atlantic follow their man into the fun-house irrelevancies of his later work, like The Spanish Prisoner.
Howie the Rookie premiered in London two years ago before moving to Edinburgh, Dublin, New York, and now San Francisco. An excellent pair of actors, Aidan Kelly and Karl Shiels, have come with it. Kelly plays Howie with a twitchy restlessness, moving around in fits and jabs, trying to prove something but always slightly afraid. Shiels, as the Rookie, is more meditative, fearful but tough and controlled. One typical moment in a bar: "Sip a whiskey, brainstorm, brainstorm. Brainstorm. Think." Both characters speak in that unnatural chopped style, but by now the actors have impeccable rhythm; and rhythm, as in Mamet, is half the show.
This introduction to Mark O'Rowe is really just a tease: We still don't know if the guy can write conversation, like his countrymen McDonagh and McPherson. (Two earlier O'Rowe plays were also monologues.) A full drama with characters interacting is not the same discipline as a pair of speeches. But making an action story work onstage with no action or props is still a hard test, and O'Rowe passes it beautifully.