His very walk is a ticking paradox. When Stephen Rea makes his entrance in “Cyprus Avenue,” David Ireland’s bruising play at the Public Theater, it’s with a gait both wary and defiant. From the way he measures his steps, you might think there were land mines beneath the blank white surface of the stage.
But the hidden bomb — and there is one, believe me — is nowhere beneath the floorboards. It lurks within the well-cut dark suit worn as a defensive skin by Mr. Rea. The true explosive device here is the person whom this excellent actor is portraying with such gentle care and harsh conviction, a respectable family man in his 60s named Eric.
Though he looks like someone you wouldn’t give more than a passing glance if you saw him on a bus, Eric and his kind are capable of inflicting untold damage. What stands before us is a bewildered white man with a profound sense of entitlement, a feeling matched only by his uneasiness and uncertainty.
“Cyprus Avenue,” which opened on Monday night under the confrontational direction of Vicky Featherstone, is an unsparing study of a midlife crisis with a body count. While it is set in another country — Northern Ireland, to be precise, though you might want to avoid using that designation in Eric’s presence — American theatergoers will recognize the beleaguered soul at its center.
That would be the frightening and frightened archetype commonly labeled the angry white male. For decades, this unhappy being has been a popular subject in films (“Joe,” “Falling Down”), theater (David Mamet’s “Edmond”) and novels (paging Johns Cheever and Updike).
More recently, that same figure has been identified with the nationalist surge that put Donald J. Trump in the White House. The Eric of “Cyprus Avenue” is a very specific Hibernian variation on that theme. The cultural details may seem exotic to Americans, but the rage is very much the same.
Oops, I probably shouldn’t have said Hibernian. Eric resents any intimation that he is an Irishman. He is, instead, a Unionist, a son of Ulster. Or as he says early in the play, “I am exclusively and non-negotiably British.”
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He delivers this declaration to a therapist, Bridget (a coolly appalled Ronke Adékoluejo), whose sessions with Eric provide a framework for flashbacks. Bridget is of Nigerian descent, and I won’t tell you what Eric calls her, in what he says is all innocence.
But it’s not black people whom Eric hates, or not nearly as much as he hates the Irish, a race for which he has a seemingly inexhaustible vocabulary of festering epithets. A peace between the historically divided factions of Ireland is his greatest nightmare come true.
It doesn’t take Eric long to make the leap into believing that little Mary-May is Mr. Adams. Nor will it take the audience long to figure out in which catastrophic — and sometimes hilariously absurd — direction the story is heading.
When it was staged across the Atlantic in 2016 — at the Abbey Theater in Dublin and the Royal Court Theater in London — “Cyprus Avenue” was hailed as a major political drama. In his review in the Guardian, Michael Billington described it as “the most shocking, subversive and violent play in London,” comparing it to Martin McDonagh’s comedy of horrors about Irish terrorism, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore.”
For me, “Cyprus Avenue” doesn’t have the propulsive stylistic drive and consistency of “Inishmore,” though Mr. Ireland’s analysis of the ambivalence in Eric’s identity crisis is often inspired. The use in “Cyprus Avenue” of the sessions with the therapist — who speaks the language of political correctness — as a structural anchor feels like a safe and conventional choice, a means of underlining the obvious.
And while the entire ensemble — rounded out by Andrea Irvine as Eric’s wife and Chris Corrigan as a stocky terrorist named Slim — is very good, the play is at its most compelling when you feel you’re stuck inside Eric’s deluded mind. (It’s easy to imagine “Cyprus Avenue” as a fabulous self-betraying monologue in the style of another great Irish playwright, Conor McPherson.)
Of course it could be argued that we are always in Eric’s mind. And Lizzie Clachan’s sterile white set, which will be thoroughly defaced by the end, and David McSeveney’s dissonant sound design, which finds the ominous in everyday noises, suggest that Eric’s mind is a terrible place to live.
But it’s Mr. Rea — who came to international fame as an I.R.A. member in the 1992 film “The Crying Game” — who puts us smack in the middle of one man’s tenacious, besieged, quivering sense of self. Watch his Eric acting out his recollection of a drunken “manly kiss” he exchanged with an Englishman in a bar, or methodically and rationally defending the most heinous acts conceivable.
“Every single one of us is a diabolical mess,” Bridget the therapist says to Eric. “We walk around being normal but all of us inside are unfathomable and messy.” Mr. Rea gives us both sides of that equation so convincingly that afterward, when you’re heading home, you’ll wonder just what evil lurks in the hearts of every anonymous person you pass on the streets.