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THOMAS Murphy's "The Gigli Concert" begins: In his dusty, dingy live-in office, J.P.W. King inserts an index finger into a depleted jar of jam and smears what's left on bread, washes it with vodka and mutters, "Christ, how am I going to get through today?" His squalid surroundings are an Irish outpost of a system of self-improvement cooked up by an America hero named Steve which when followed to the letter saves us from ourselves and the world out to crush us.

Somewhere, from another time, the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli sings "O paradiso" from Meyerbeer's opera "L'Africana." The aria celebrates the 15th century Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama's discovery of a paradise, the fruition of hopes and dreams. There are pieces sung by Gigli (1890-1957) from "Mefistofele," "La Gioconda," "Lucia de Lammermoor," "Atilla," "Rigoletto" and no doubt others (I am no opera expert).

You don't have to be an expert. J.P.W. King soon gets a visitor, a would-be client identified only as the Irish Man or later Benimillo, and then a second visitor, Mona, a woman in sexual overdrive who brings jam, tea, batteries for his electric razor in return.

"How am I going to get through today?" or, alternately, "How to bounce back?" sounds a theme. The Irish Man is a rich builder. He wants to sing like Gigli. He brings opera recordings to make his point. A second repeated theme is it is not necessary to know what is being sung; it is necessary to listen, to clear away enough mental room to intuit thought and feeling.

This advice, traded back and forth among the Irish Man, King and Mona in one form or another, applies to us, too. We have only to listen on the way to feeling, and knowing. The play itself is a kind of singing.

"The Gigli Concert" may very well be a masterpiece of modern theater. If you haven't heard of Thomas Murphy, neither had I until the Irish Classical Theatre recommended him. In Ireland he's regarded as the equal of Brian Friel, an internationally acclaimed playwright. This play makes it crystal clear why. This performance, directed by Fortunato Pezzimenti, makes me eternally grateful to both Murphy and the Irish Classical Theatre.

We have paradise, we have squalor at Jimmy King's Dynamatology premises. King, incidentally, is British. He's in Ireland to bilk a little cash with charts and a "process of destratification" that arrives at a place "we call Nihil," the details being unimportant. The familiar political imperial theme sounds, even if it is sotto voce. What takes place before our eyes is a kind of struggle for power over one another, over the dark contending forces offered up by mere existence.

They talk, but do they listen? They slip and slide over questions of doubt and existential dread going back to God's "I am who am." The Irish Man is paying to be heard, to be helped out of the ditch of his depression, but Jimmy keeps relapsing into his own story. The Irish Man pleads to sing like Gigli for "one sweet hour." Jimmy begs for "one sweet hour" with a woman named Helen. Two obsessions: to sing like Gigli, Helen. They are temporary, they are inventions to "keep on going." They are paradisaical salvations. Mona's is a phantom child named Karen-Marie.

But singing, why? The Irish Man: "Like, you can talk forever, but singing. Singing, d'yeh know? The only possible way to tell people . . . who are you?" The voices in the play sing in a way, the play in its way is operatic, with King, the Irish Man and Mona part-singing, their separate arias going in divergent directions, but crucially linked. (There is, incidentally, more glorious music of the mind and soul in this play than in 99 out of 100 Broadway musicals, no, make that 100 out of 100.)

If the existential demons were to agglutinate into a hot potato, that would be a way of looking at what happens in Jimmy King's office rooms. It's as if all that were determined to crush you were a fixed quantity that you could pass off to the next person and to the next. The Irish Man passes to Jimmy. Mona passes to Jimmy. Jimmy spreads medicated pills on bread and wolfs them down with vodka. Then he invokes magic.

The ending is a thrilling, theatrical triumph. The entire production is a triumph.

I haven't mentioned that it is raucously funny. Murphy writes at full tilt with that combination of black despair and God-challenging humor the Irish have made into a national industry.

There are three excellent performances. Vincent O'Neill is the Irish Man. Josephine Hogan is Mona. Richard Wesp is J.P.W. King. It is cohesive playing that not only counts but without it nothing, and Fortunato Pezzimenti gets it from his people. They are a joy to enjoy.

A good share of the humor devolves on Wesp, on King's quackery and appearances. But he's also driven to spells of emotional wildness and despair, and in the climactic moments smashes through into a kind of salvation. Even exercising some caution against exaggeration, I still would call Wesp's performance great. "The Gigli Concert" is a great play, a demanding play on the actors, but especially on whoever plays J.P.W. King. Wesp takes it to the limit, brilliantly.

The Gigli Concert
Rating: *****
Comedy-drama by Thomas Murphy.
Directed by Fortunato Pazzimenti, featuring Vincent O'Neill, Richard Wesp and Josephine Hogan.
Performances continue Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., through May 15 in the Irish Classical Theatre, Calumet Arts Cafe Building, 48 W. Chippewa St. (853-4282).

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