Howie the Rookie

The Delta Boys
Burning Coal Theatre
Through March 15

The parallels are striking. On a borrowed stage, a brash new troupe makes its first, indelible mark, introducing audiences to a contemporary Irish playwright and a troubled urban Ireland unseen before in the region’s theater.

Ten years and a $2 million theater space later, that group, in turn, helps another fledgling company do much the same, hosting a production that unambiguously ushers it into the front row of local independent groups. Once again, the show is the regional premiere of a promising young Irish playwright. Its subject: an urban Irish dystopia, almost a generation after the earlier work.

Seasoned theater-goers will have already recognized the earlier company and production: Burning Coal Theatre’s Rat in the Skull, playwright Ron Hutchinson’s lacerating 1980s-era war of nerves between a suspected Irish Republican Army bomber and the Irish detective assigned to “break” him.

Now it’s time to meet the newbiesparticularly since the Delta Boys’ production of Howie the Rookie, which closes this weekend at Burning Coal’s new theater in downtown Raleigh, is the recipient of our rarest honor: the Independent‘s sixth five-star theater review since the inception of that rating system in September 2003.

Like Holy Hell and Nixon’s Nixon, two five-star productions preceding it, Howie the Rookie is an unabashed celebration of the two-character play. Still, it’s tempting to call it a pair of one-man shows joined at the hip: Playwright Mark O’Rowe’s 1999 script is essentially two extended monologues, punctuated by the briefest appearances of each character’s nemesis.

At the start, an amiable enough Dublin street tough named Howie vividly recounts what sounds at first like a typical night for him and his crew. Refusing to babysit a little brother whom the entire family apparently calls Mousie, Howie narrowly escapes “the oul’ one” and “the oul’ fella”: his loser mom and stepdad. What follows is another night of brawling, beers, briefly raised hopes and subsequent, gratuitous abuse from a girl at the bar before dead-end sex with the morbidly obese sister of one of his mates. (His not-all-that affectionate nickname for the girl? Avalanche.)

After the night takes a turn to the grotesqueor significantly more so than normal for this lota sketchy, self-styled ladies’ man named Rookie takes over the stage and the narrative. Howie has just beaten the stuffing out of him for an unlikely blood debt: a case of scabies his friend caught after sleeping on a mattress that Rookie had slept on before.

Never mind that, though: Over the next 24 hours, circumstances will ultimately make Howie Rookie’s improbable knight errant, as the two ultimately face down a local lowlife kingpin named Ladyboy.

O’Rowe’s visceral script is peppered with explicit descriptions of bodies, violence, sex and just about everything else. Though his rough trade characters are far from heroes, as the evening develops, we do see the moral code at least one of them lives by.

But the adrenal exhilaration we experience stems from the playwright’s bravura street poetry: a buzzy verbal jazz that never fails. O’Rowe has been compared, justifiably, to David Mamet and Quentin Tarantino, but thankfully, Rookie and Howie lack the stagy artifice of the latter and the celebration of mean-spiritedness and misogyny often found in the former. True: Rookie and Howie are clearly clueless around women, but in O’Rowe’s hands that trait is soundly mockedwhen it isn’t shown as poignant.

A script so technically demanding would be impenetrable without pitch-perfect direction and acting. In director Kathryn Miliken’s hands, Lucius Robinson makes the forbidding street argot and blank verse of O’Rowe’s script transparent. His 40-minute opening monologue as Howie is an acting achievement: an energetic solo slam dance along a verbal tightrope. If Stephen LeTrent’s rejoinder as Rookie deliberately starts slower than Howie’s overcaffeinated tale, it builds to a gripping climax. Since both are accomplished storytellers, the script thrives in their hands.

Compared with the watery domestic beer we’re often served on local stages, Howie the Rookie is a single-malt whiskey direct from the old country, as potent as it is intoxicating, served straight, no chaser. Those who appreciate a drop of the hard stuff should stop in before the taps close this Saturday night.

Write Byron Woods at