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An Irishman chooses sides in 'Night in November'

SOMERVILLE -- There's something a bit willfully naive about ``A Night in November," Marie Jones's portrait of a prejudiced Northern Irish Protestant who, at the seemingly settled age of 39, suddenly undergoes a kind of conversion experience.

The catalyst is a pre-World Cup shakedown soccer match in the fall of 1993 between the predominantly Protestant north (occupied by Unionists who like to pretend to themselves that they're actually living in England) and the mostly Catholic south. The contest is pro forma -- only the south's Republic of Ireland will be eligible to compete in the international arena -- and few of the south's supporters venture to Belfast to support their side. Little wonder, when they're met with vicious chants of ``Trick or Treat" -- alluding to the recent massacre of seven Catholic civilians in a nearby town.

Kenneth Norman McAllister -- the principal role embodied by Marty Maguire, who assumes several dozen personae in the course of this tour-de-force one-man show -- isn't even interested in soccer. He's just there, under pressure from his wife, to accompany his crusty, chain-smoking father-in-law. We've already seen Kenneth, at his welfare office job, exert some covert discrimination in dealing with a Catholic applicant, and also exult over his recent acceptance into the local golf club, an honor that his Catholic boss will likely never enjoy. Kenneth is a small-b bigot, but not a monster -- or so he thinks, until he's thrown in with a hate-fueled mob and forced to mouth along, lest he become a target of their bloodlust.

It's a powerful scene, a high point of the two-hour drama. And Maguire is extraordinarily protean, shifting characters with a few key gestures (the wife's cagey air of leisure, as she plots their next social coup; a street urchin's chin-to-brow snot wipe). As awards from the Edinburgh Festival and the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle will attest, this is a stunning exercise, not to be missed. What disappoints is the direction in which Jones (who's best known for the Tony-nominated ``Stones in His Pocket") takes the script.

Once his mind has been pried open a crack, Kenneth embarks on an amazing journey -- all the way over to the Catholic side of town, which he's never seen and which he finds, to his surprise, to be far from barbaric. He also revisits the British-identified slums that he managed to vault out of and realizes that the class he has climbed to relies on this sector to do the dirty work -- the overt terrorism -- that keeps the local Catholics in their place.

It's where Kenneth goes next that undermines Jones's message. Can she really be proposing that the sublimated warfare of nationalistic sporting competitions -- the kind that routinely foment riots and murderous mayhem among onlookers -- represents, as Kenneth observes, ``the best that's in human nature"? He gets caught up in the World Cup finals, but it's hard to applaud his progress. The Republic of Ireland, as sports fans will recall, went up against Italy in the 1994 World Cup, and the anti-Italian chant (to the tune of ``Camptown Ladies") that Kenneth and his co-rooters come up with is neither cute nor funny, and ultimately not all that far removed from the shouts of ``Trick or Treat" that sparked his change of heart.

See what you think, though. There's no question that Maguire's impassioned performance deserves a broad audience.

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