At first I thought it was just the desolation of the final scene. If the world doesn’t come to an end with two middle-aged drunks on one final bender in Juno and the Paycock, the house of Boyle, the play’s central family, most certainly does.

The room’s been stripped to the walls. The lights have gone out. The tenement door left wide open. Grace, safety, redemption and love have all left the room. A low wind blows through the cracks in the windows, the gaps in the wooden floorboards. And the one man who could have saved a family chortles, as he lies on his back on the floor, dead drunk, in the wings of his closest dark angel.

It’s one of the coldest endings I’ve seen to a play in some time.

Were the rest of Sean O’Casey’s script–or this Burning Coal production–up to its standard, I’d have no other choice but to conclude, with director Jerome Davis, that Juno and the Paycock actually is the most important play of the 20th century.

They’re not, unfortunately. But while uneven accents and casting were met with script difficulties on more than one occasion, perhaps–just perhaps–it was the self-inflicted curse of expectations which compromised this production most.

Witness the recent American Film Institute “best film” and Random House “best novel” imbroglios: One always fairly begs for a fight anytime the “official” lists are hauled out and tabulated. (Indeed, I’ve got a few tussles coming up myself, no doubt, when the Indy’s views on the region’s best productions, direction, scripts, set designs and leading and supporting actors of 2002 are published on this page in seven short days. Place your bets.)

When the talk turns to what’s the best, mere goodness becomes suddenly insufficient, anticlimactic.

But if Davis’ program notes unambiguously indicate he thinks Juno is the 20th century’s most important play, audiences (and critics) are likely to look for a production which just as unambiguously proves the proposition. Such a feat this show, regrettably, does not do. In an unfortunate bit of theatrical synechdoche, expectations of a “century’s best” play can so easily be equated with a “century’s best” production of it. This Burning Coal production isn’t. To be clear, though, it isn’t even remotely fair if rhetoric sets things up so it has to be. But the way Davis zealously oversells things here, there’s little choice: O’Casey invented the sitcom (a dubious achievement if ever there was one). He’s the first to usher the dysfunctional family onstage. Outside of Shakespeare, he’s the theatre’s only practitioner of tragicomedy–at least, so says Davis.

Good Lord. In such hyperbolic high water, the claim that Juno’s the real play of the century almost seems an afterthought by comparison.

By the time we’ve merely read the playbill, the director’s already finished digging his own grave. With that kind of an intro, if this play does anything less than unify the spheres, it’s toast.

No wonder such a feeling of letdown dogs this show–despite the fact it was, all things considered, a decent night at the theater. Not great, mind you: not when Irish accents peel off through the show like band-aids in hot water, or when Lennardo DeLaine’s narrow bandwidth here reduces his character, Johnny, to a sour monotone.

And if O’Casey’s script didn’t invent the stereotype at the same time it transacted all those other firsts, with our backward-looking eyes, Juno’s inadequate character development is hard to miss in this production. The present tense is a shrinking ledge indeed in Juno: We rarely if ever see, in this production or this script, how any of these characters became the people that they are.

Instead, as in a sitcom–a bad one, anyway–we’re so preoccupied with the present fact of their situation that we’re too frequently left to come up with a meaningful back story on our own to figure out how they got here.

The lyrics to catchy 60-second theme songs neatly covered up similar weaknesses once, on shows like Gilligan’s Island, Green Acres and Mr. Ed. No such luck awaits us here.

Not that Juno’s not funny. David Dossey’s take on Captain Jack, the loutish husband, is rewarding, particularly when he camouflages anger with extreme exuberance: At one short-fuse moment, he simultaneously offers and orders Ms. Madigan (Nan Stephenson) to take a seat when she’s gotten the best of him.

For her part, Stephenson’s fun as the street-wise landlord. James Fleming hams it up as the outrageous Joxer Daly, temporary boon companion to anyone who buys the beer, at least as long as their back’s not turned. Debra Gillingham as the Captain’s wife only temporarily overcomes the pastlessness which afflicts this production, as does Emily Ranii as her daughter, Mary.

A woefully foreshortened endgame no sooner presents predicament than it uses it to usher in the end–only one of the more obvious flaws in O’Casey’s script.

All told these flaws would be more or less forgivable in a regular play–but never in the best one in a hundred years. EndBlock