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The fighting Irish

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Theatre in the Square is billing Howie the Rookie as Trainspotting meets Catcher in the Rye, even though playwright Mark O'Rowe's writing is decidedly more Irvine Welsh than J.D. Salinger.

The ultraviolent two-man show takes perverse pleasure in the gritty daily details of Dublin's underclass. The title refers to two characters instead of one -- feckless young thug The Howie Lee (Daniel Pettrow) and his unsuspecting rival, The Rookie, who has inadvertently infected Howie's friend's mattress with scabies.

Pettrow's thick Irish brogue can be daunting at first, but the show becomes more engaging after a short period of idiom shock. Between swigs of Guinness, Pettrow gradually reveals the hoodlum's tenderness beneath his Bruce Lee exterior.

If Howie's monologue is driven by bravado, The Rookie's (Damon Boggess) banks on desperation. Playing against a freakshow cast of rejects, The Rookie rarely rises above the part of punching bag. He eventually forges an unlikely friendship with Howie, who proves to be the ultimate protagonist of this black comedy. Indeed, Howie the Rookie preserves some genuine moments of hilarity, especially when the overweight bar wench Avalanche stomps in.

Director Alan Kilpatrick wisely allows the two talented actors to unravel their narratives without rush, although Boggess brings less nuance to his role. Equally effective is the barren stage, littered with a rotted chain-link fence and a gash of graffiti.

O'Rowe squeezes scatological references into roughly every fourth line, and seems obsessed with body parts. A graphic description of a fistfight in the second half borders on nauseating, and the show practically swims in snot, shaved balls and infected scabs.

This harsh subtext of physicality culminates with both monologues' shocking, blood-splattered conclusions. Though not for the squeamish, Howie the Rookie asks ponderous questions of mortality and everyday drama, its strikingly flawed characters struggling, as The Rookie puts it, "to survive in a world full of pain."


Howie the Rookie runs though April 20 at Theatre in the Square's Alley Stage. 11 Whitlock Ave. Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m.; 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sun. $15-$20. 770-422-8369. www.theatreinthesquare.com.

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