This is the worst time of year for new movies, but theater is alive and kicking on stages around Boston. ONCE is worth seeing again and again, but BIRDY never takes flight.

Mackenzie Lesser-Roy & Nile Scott Hawver
Photo: Maggie Hall Photography

As soon as I knew ONCE was in town, that signature melody started looping through my brain. I’d first heard it in the sweet, small 2007 film which won an Oscar for “Falling Slowly,” written by its stars Irish musician Glen Hansard and his Czech mate Marketa Irglova, who fell in love while making the movie. I saw it transformed onstage in NYC where it took home 8 Tonys including Best Musical and I couldn’t wait to see it again at SpeakEasy Stage, its intimacy perfectly suited to the show’s simple staging and bittersweet love story.

The “Guy” (Nile Scott Hawver) and the “Girl” (Mackenzie Lesser-Roy) connect around vacuum cleaners and music. He’s on the verge of giving up when she steps into the bar in which he’s stranded his guitar and almost his career–but for her belief in him.  The music they go on to make together is the heart of the show and charts their delicate sad romance.  But the action begins pre-show, in that bar center stage, right where these two will meet. Here we find an ensemble of actor musicians whooping it up with a storm of Irish ditties, creating a rich, warm setting for the love story that will take root there.

The music is a series of heartbreaking ballads and anthems sung and performed by the actors as their feelings for each other bloom along with the ensuing emotional and logistical complications. Nile Scott Hawver is handsome and charismatic as “Guy,” but his voice is narrow of range and tone. Mackenzie Lesser-Roy as “Girl,”  however, is a knockout, mischievous and strong beneath her quiet dark beauty; add in her pure, plaintive soprano, and it’s an elixir he and we cannot resist. Together they are magic.

The ensemble is a winning assortment of characters who play and sing onstage, and infuse every inch of this intimately staged production with great heart, especially Billy Meleady who’s quite touching as Guy’s soulful “Da”;  Billy Butler is hilarious as the other “guy” who’s worked up and protective of Girl; and Marta Rymer as the sexy “Reza,” also plays a smokin’ violin.

Though some of the Irish and Czech accents come and go, the production under Paul Melone’s direction glows with good will and taps into the universality of the romance and empathy engaged. Notable was the casting of Asian actor Jeff Song as a gay Irish bank manager with an impeccable brogue. Indeed, the show’s emotional core resonates across all borders, ethnic, geographic, relational, and this little bar becomes a crossroads for anyone and everyone who has ever fallen in love. IRRESISTIBLE. See ONCE at SpeakEasy now extended through APRIL 7. 

BIRDY was also once a movie (1984) starring Matthew Modine and Nicholas Cage, but it began as a novel by William Wharton and was later adapted for the theater, here presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. Despite excellent performances,  Steven Maler’s meticulous direction, and an impressive set, the play never convinced me emotionally or psychologically. Its “writerly” language and heavy-handed theatrical approach, left this odd, intricate material grounded.

I recently re-familiarized myself with the film and have tried to locate what didn’t work for me onstage. “Birdy” (Spencer Hamp)is a teenager so nicknamed because of his obsession with birds. He is in love with them, and accompanied by his best friend Al (Maxim Chumov) they spend their innocent days before WWII chasing after pigeons and trying to fly. The play leaps forward and back in time, to and from the boys postwar, from which they emerge battle-scarred and played by different actors. Al (now Keith White) has had half his face blown off, and Birdy (now Will Taylor) has psychologically retreated into the avian world. Unspeaking and hovering low to the ground, he perches like a wounded pigeon. The weirdly surly Doctor White (Steven Barkhimer in an unsubtle performance) subjects Al to angry interrogations under the guise of treatment. We discover that both men were wounded long before the war, Al by a brutal father, and Birdy by a “bitch” of a mother.

Both sets of actors do a fine job in very physical parts. Keith White is visibly seething with rage and sadness. Will Taylor may one day have to have his knees replaced from the sustained crouching. The young duo capture the vitality of youth, and never stop moving, leaping around a huge scaffolding strewn with the physical detritus of both the war and their dysfunctional pre-war pasts.

The language is heavy with MEANING, and the actors push that. “The earth is too strong for us.”  Birdy is a “loon.” “I’m no longer a boy!!” This may have worked in the novel, but I felt like a sitting duck as the metaphors landed like torpedoes. Naomi Wallace’s adaptation is obvious and heavy-handed, bogged down with symbolism, and depends on overlong monologues which explain too much, and sap both credulity and dramatic momentum. Most important of all, the play never convinced me of the basis of All and Birdy’s friendship to begin with.

The film showed more and said less; and its score by Peter Gabriel helped hold this peculiar and fragile tale of friendship, war, and healing in suspension. No doubt a well- intentioned effort, but this BIRDY never gets off the ground. Through March 17 presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company in residence at Babson College.