The actor John Keating is a tall bag of bones with fright-wig hair and frightened-deer eyes, a look built for character parts. That he nabs the lead role in Laoisa Sexton’s “The Pigeon in the Taj Mahal” at the Irish Repertory Theater is reason enough to see it, even if the play’s protracted execution wears out the prickly charm of its premise.
Mr. Keating plays the Pigeon of the title, a sweater-clad, Elvis-quoting naïf who lives in a trailer park in rural Ireland. Is he lonesome tonight? Not precisely. But he’s clearly thrilled to find a young woman in smeared makeup and ripped tulle dumped on his doorstep. “You have the uncommon beauty,” he says to her unconscious form. “Like a swan in a dirty lake!” This is Lolly (Ms. Sexton), a plastered bride-to-be overdosed on vodka and body glitter. On waking, she first threatens Pigeon with a hammer and then softens at his odd hospitality.
Once Lolly is more or less awake, Ms. Sexton has good fun contrasting her shallow city styles with Pigeon’s callow ways. “D’you got iPhone, d’you do?” she whines. “I phone?” the perplexed Pigeon asks. But as they remain in the trailer, the play starts to spin its motionless wheels. There’s a lot of dialogue and plenty of depredation, especially once another bachelorette (Zoë Watkins) arrives, but having put these characters together, Ms. Sexton and the director Alan Cox don’t know quite what to do with them. Despite a persistent theme of innocence and experience, and some questions about the place of folklore in contemporary Ireland, “The Pigeon in the Taj Mahal” mostly feels like a one-act that outgrew itself. A little less conversation wouldn’t hurt.
But action concerns Ms. Sexton far less than providing a vigorous, sometimes vulgar showcase for herself and the other actors. A deft performer, she clearly enjoys Lolly’s woozy, crude obliviousness, but she is just as happy to cede the stage to Mr. Keating. Pigeon isn’t an entirely credible character, but Mr. Keating lends him warmth and a gentle kind of bravery, even while wearing lipstick and a penis headband. Cheers to Ms. Sexton for letting this distinctive actor spread his wings.