For last year's centennial of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, playwright Bernard McMullan crafted a script for a one-man show that combines comic fantasy with historical drama. Now the resulting work, "Jimmy Titanic," enjoys its Boston premiere at the New Rep in Watertown.
For "Titanic" buffs who watched last year's film accounts (including the 3D reissue of the James Cameron film, the 12-part European television miniseries "Titanic: Blood and Steel," and the Julian Fellows-penned four-part miniseries "Titanic") the play will have some familiar elements -- the immigrants, bound to the United States, who traveled in steerage; the ship builders who were aboard for the ship's maiden, and only, voyage; accounts of the ship's structure and construction.
The main character, portrayed (as are all of the play's two dozen characters) by Colin Hamell, is a fellow named Jimmy, one of the workmen in question who, having spent three years helping to build the great vessel, sailed on the doomed journey as part of a "guarantee team." Jimmy's best friend is Tommy, and the third member of their team is a fellow named Mikey. Jimmy's account of the panic and tragedy of the great ship's loss is riveting, but that's only half of the story.
Jimmy and his pals do not survive the Titanic's sinking. They, along with about 1,500 others, perish in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912, following the ship's collision with an iceberg just before midnight on April 14. But here's the silver lining: Jimmy and his friends subsequently find themselves entering the Kingdom of Heaven, where, one hundred years later, the play unfolds.
Jimmy -- something of a celebrity thanks to the manner of his passing, and known to his admirers in the afterlife as Jimmy Titanic -- has made friends with the Archangel Gabriel, who, like everyone else in Heaven, is a bit different than one might expect.
Gabriel is a fussy little swindler who shakes down new arrivals; nonetheless, he and Jimmy spend some of eternity hanging out together, playing tricks on "JDs" (the Just Dead), who have not yet quite comprehended where they are. (If Gabriel's depiction runs counter to myth, just wait until you get a load of God the Father's diffident, chain-smoking persona.)
Jimmy's other pursuits are pretty standard for a man who will never age past 25: He chases women, trading on his celebrity as one of the Titanic victims, marveling at how women in Heaven never age (no one does), and side-stepping the attentions of certain celestial residents, such as plague victims. (There's no risk, of course, but why take even non-existent chances?)
The play's two story threads twine about one another, as Jimmy describes (and acts out, in flashback) the events of the fateful night a century ago, including a surreal, quite funny encounter with two aristocrats. Hamell switches effortlessly from comedy to drama, and his performance is just as deft as he hops from character to character, accent to accent, and even language to language.
The play's run at the New Rep is brief, being part of a world tour that has already seen the play stop through Donegal, Ireland, as well as destinations in the United States. Though the story of Titanic may not seem overtly Irish in theme (what with iconic images of stoic British crew and passengers going down into the icy Atlantic with the ship), the fact is that the ship was very much tied to Ireland, having been built in Belfast's Harland and Wolff shipyard. (The Tir Na production will end up in Belfast later this year.)
With no props and no set, Hamell has only his own skills and lighting by Tyler Lambert-Perkins, along with some incidental music, to rely upon. His performance dazzles: This is the work of a virtuoso. Even if the script's unusual blend of genre elements is not successful at every beat (and don't get me wrong: It works for the most part), Hamell alone makes this a show worth celebrating. Carmel O'Reilly directs, her work fitting hand-in-glove with Hamell's.
"Jimmy Titanic" plays through June 30 at The Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street in Watertown. For info or tickets, call 617-923-8487 or visit www.newrep.org