This one-act autobiographical piece, about a fatherless lad from the Irish section of Cleveland, came into Joe's Pub May 30 for two performances. While still in development, it is already mightily powerful. Designed as an entertainment that might fit handily in the sort of Irish pub where O'Malley was born and raised, Pub Crawl, complete with a clutch of Irish drinking songs and Guinness on tap, turns out to be provocative, funny and heartwarming.
O'Malley, who also appeared in this past season's Nobody Loves You and Little Miss Sunshine, enters in a blue/green plaid shirt and jeans, sporting sunglasses and wrapped in the tricolor flag of Ireland. After getting things off to a rousing Irish-bar musical start, O'Malley presents his milieu: the Angle, a blue-collar, Shanty Irish neighborhood along the Cuyahoga River where the folks work hard and drink hard. He explains how he was conceived during a drunken one-night-stand on St. Patrick's Day, 1980, with the man in question fleeing long before he was born, thus making O'Malley "the biggest Mick bastard you have ever met." But he also had "the best mother imaginable," and an extended community of Irish neighbors.
O'Malley spent his early years pub crawling — or rather, crawling — in Michael's Pub, a place for good times, music, friends and pints. The Michael in question was his mother's faithful pal, an Irish fireman who inevitably turned out to be gay. The orange-haired, friendly-faced O'Malley weaves yarn after yarn, and they are good ones. Growing up in a two-family house beside a Hell's Angel "who did as many drugs as he sold." Helping out at a Christmas tree lot at the age of five; when his mother saw the tips he earned the first morning, she suggested that maybe he try walking with a limp. Trying to explain to his first grade teacher, Sister Marion, why the pub was the best place on earth; and telling how the Sister, after retirement, became a regular.
Having started the evening with a strong musical component — musical director Stephen Oremus, also from The Book of Mormon, leads a group of eight musicians (including two vocalists) — and moved into a dandy stream of funny anecdotes, O'Malley turns serious. As a nine-year-old third grader, he learns that Michael is dying from AIDS. In a puzzling development, the supportive fireman marries Rory's mother — so that she can collect his pension and death benefits — and dies two months later. Before he does, he makes Rory's mom promise to take the boy to New York to see a Broadway show. Michael clearly understood where Rory was headed.
O'Malley then moves into even more emotionally poignant territory. At 19, he takes a vacation to Ireland and treks to a small village in an effort to track down the man who fathered him and disappeared 20 years earlier. The climax is gripping and tear-inducing, although things never grow too severe — not with O'Malley's reassuringly magical smile. The show seems a likely prospect for a future life, perhaps in a theatrical setting. While the eight musicians clearly help fuel the evening, they could easily be pared down to three or so. What's important in Pub Crawl is not the music or the musical atmosphere; it's the story of struggle, acceptance, community and love that O'Malley spins.