Is a tragicomedy about the loss of the Titanic just over a century ago unimaginable? Actually, it wouldn’t be the first such effort, as that event has been the basis of several previous treatments, including the 1960 musical comedy about its famed survivor “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”, by Meredith Wilson. It was also featured in the more serious 1993 work of connected vignettes, “Hello Again”, by Michael John LaChiusa (based on “La Ronde”, the ship not identified by name but as a transatlantic vessel which sank in 1912), and of course was the title “character” in the 1997 Tony Award winner as Best Musical (as well as the Oscar-winning Best Film). Thus the Tir Na Theater production of “Jimmy Titanic”, currently being presented by New Rep Theater in Watertown, finds itself in good company. In this case, as opposed to some of those previous overpopulated efforts, the cast consists of a single (but amazingly versatile) actor, one Colin Hamell (who is also Tir Na’s Producing Artistic Director). Written by journalist Bernard McMullan (from Belfast) under the direction of Carmel O’Reilly, the play had its world premiere in New York (way off-Broadway) last year, then in Philadelphia, on to Donegal, and now (though it has also been produced by WHAT on Cape Cod) in its Boston area premiere.
Set 100 years after the tragedy (thus, in our own times), it features more than twenty characters, some in heaven, some in Belfast or on the Titanic itself. The characters include the fictional Jimmy Boylan and Tommy Mackey, two Belfast shipyard workers, as well as the (overly) prissy Angel Gabriel, very Italianate Saint Peter, bombastic John Jacob Astor, and a chain-smoking God, sometimes in a (literally) heavenly disco. The Irish-born Hamell is mesmerizing in portraying them all; his acting in the two shipyard worker roles is especially, uh, riveting. As directed by O’Reilly and written by McMullan, this is clearly a true collaborative creation that has undoubtedly grown with each iteration. The small playing space of New Rep’s Black Box Theater is ideal for this superb production, using virtually every inch of the venue, very effectively lit by Lighting Designer Tyler Lambert-Perkins.
It’s an often funny, sometimes moving voyage. As hilarious as some of his roles are, it’s when Hamell gets serious that this is most engaging. Jimmy reveals that “Sometimes at night, I’m back on the Titanic…1498 people lost…the crew…their pride and joy, the Titanic, the wonder ship”, while another passenger notes, “Did you never hear of driver’s ed? Big object in frontaya, steer around”. Sound advice, but do book passage on this wonder ship soon, as it sets sail at the end of the month. Just don’t skip the lifeboat drill.