James X arrives in New York

The last time I was at the little theater at 45 Bleecker was to see Colin Quinn doing Long Story Short, his funny retelling of the history of man and all his weaknesses and  imperfections, before it shifted to Broadway.

Last night, I was there for the preview of a drama – James X – that Liam Neeson and Gabriel Byrne had banded together to bring to New York, and which Byrne had directed.

The one-man-show was written and performed by Gerard Mannix Flynn, a man who endured much abuse in Ireland from age 11 onward as he entered the horrendously flawed system of religious and state-run facilities (industrial schools, mental hospitals, prisons) where he was repeatedly raped and beaten, leaving him a profoundly wounded man when the system tossed him out as he reached adulthood.

The show officially opens tonight for a run through to December 18th, though, when I asked Mannix Flynn yesterday if he’d be spending Christmas in New York, he said “I don’t know.  They asked me to stay and do more plays.” – so the run may well be extended.

Flynn takes to the stage in a tan suit, brown brogues and no tie, clutching a manila folder marked “James X” as he waits to be called to testify about his own experiences at the hands of the court system, the police, state doctors, jailers and the Christian Brothers (who always had a reputation for being fierce, only most of us had no idea as to just how much so).  Nervous, fidgety and now sober and nicotine-free, he turns to us and recounts his story until they’re ready for him.

Assuming a wonderfully heavy inner city Dublin accent, Flynn takes us – oftentimes rhythmically and poetically – through his birth and infancy, into a childhood of many brothers and sisters (14 kids in all) and embattled parents and not enough money, until soon the restless child is escaping from school and running up and down the streets of Dublin, a wild boy, but harmless.  After one too many run-ins with the truant officer and some petty theft, James’ terrifying odyssey begins.

Mind you, all of this is portrayed by the limber fifty-something Flynn in the suit as he becomes the young boy, crouching, rolling, gamboling in circles around the stage, contorting himself, at times face up or face down on the floor, all while a long trail of words tumble out in a mad stream, describing everything right down to the smells and sounds he recalls.  Flynn’s writing takes us inside the head of the child, with a flood of thoughts and internal monologue reminiscent of Ulysses at times.

If you’re thinking that a work like this is just too dark to subject yourself to during such a festive (and often fraught) season, don’t let that keep you from seeing James X.  Even with all Mannix Flynn has endured and the troubled legacy that abuse endowed to much of his adult life, you must come see how it is that he has managed to wrest back his destiny and stand up under a very bright light to tell it all, declaring that this is not his shame, and indeed, his story is his armor.  Moreover, like so many others in the fraternity of Irish writers, even the darkest of conditions never manages to fully obscure the humor of day-to-day life, and even knowing that, I was still surprised by how many of Flynn’s observations did make us laugh last night.

Certain performances include extras.  For example, tonight all ticketholders will also be able to enjoy a post-performance reception, and on other days there will be discussions afterward.

One little bit of trivia for you: the two hearts tattooed on Flynn’s right hand he had done when he was ten years old, for the price of a shilling each.

Give yourself enough time before or after the event to have a look at the Impact exhibit lionining the walls of the theater lobby, which contains a mix of images of Flynn himself from official records, paired with reproductions of testimony about his condition over the years.  (Much of which is also reproduced in a beautiful programme the likes of which you usually never see off-Broadway.)  To study it after having just seen such a warm, intelligent and gifted man on stage re-living the years of childhood terror and confusion and pain, is all the more harrowing, because now you feel you know him.

I couldn’t help but ask Mannix afterward if James X is destined for the cinema screen any time soon and he said “It won’t be a film of it, it will be a film of this (pointing to the copy of Nothing to Say that he’d just signed).  I have a text of it written and ready to go.”

Which then leads one to wonder if he’d be acting in it himself.  “I don’t know yet,” he replied.  “I’ll see what happens in New York.  This is a kind of destination, so, you know, we’ll see.   I might actually just go off and grow carrots.  That’s the kind of person I am, I’ll say ‘Right, that’s enough’ and go off and do something else.  I’ll see what comes out of it.  There’s a lot of potential and a lot of work, so, we’ll see.”

There is a table at one end of the lobby laden with copies of all the reports from the various commissions of recent years since the seeping taint of decades of child abuse in the very Catholic republic of Ireland have come to light.  It was eerie to see this performance last night, just a few hours after this story appeared in the New York Times about the former archbishop of Dublin who has just been accused of “serial sexual child abuse” and, incidentally, on what was The Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

Having spent huge chunks of my childhood in the Dublin home of my deeply religious grandfather – where weekly Mass, fish on Fridays and the Angelus chimes ringing out at St. John the Baptist down the road while they were also gonged out on RTE radio and TV were all a regular part of our lives – and where, fortunately for me, I never experienced any of these awful goings-on, it has been ever sadder to see again and again how much abuse took place (200,000 children was the number Flynn mentioned yesterday), at the hands of so many trusted people in power, and how much still continues to be unearthed.  It’s like one of those horror movies with scare after scare at the end.  Every time you think “That’s the last of it,” there’s more.

See it or skip it?

Whatever you do, don’t miss it!  And for the sake of the people away on holidays, hope the run gets extended beyond the 18th.

Also, if you’re at all keen to read Flynn’s memoir Nothing to Say, get a copy at the box office, because it’s not easy to find on this side of the Atlantic, and at $15, it’s cheaper than having it shipped from Ireland.  Maybe they’ll also add the book version of James X in coming days.  One can hope….

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