Rarely do we see true beauty in the theater, but Give Me Your Hand provides one of those extremely special moments.

Envisioned and performed by two of Ireland’s leading actors — Dermot Crowley and Dearbhla Molloy — the evening is based on a group of poems by Irish writer Paul Durcan (a Whitbread Prize winner, presently known as the Costa Book Awards ), alluding to an imaginative stroll through London’s National Gallery, painting by painting. We get a bit of history, before leaping into the very mind of the painting’s subject or painter, as interpreted by these formidable actors utilizing Durcan’s lyrical language. Crowley and Molloy are recognizable to audiences from their various appearances on PBS; Molloy was in the original cast of the wonderful Brian Friel play about sisters in pre-war rural Ireland, Dancing at Lughnasa, on Broadway, for which she received a Tony nomination.

The show takes place in a very intimate downstairs area at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York City, and seats are on a first-come, first-serve basis. The two actors stand side by side at lecterns while masterpieces from London’s National Gallery are projected on a black wall behind and between them. They take on characters from (or inspired by) the various paintings. Each actor manages to shrink, grow, age, regress, and change accents and nationalities within seconds and without a shred of makeup.

In a scant 70 minutes, we have seen a ton of art historical detail,(as in Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding,” where we learn that the bride was, oddly enough, dead before her husband commissioned the picture), discovering how art can inspire one to new stories and interpretations. An instance of this is present when Edgar Degas’ The Spartans suddenly becomes an entire small town, where the teams of boys and girls in the painting are married off to each other. And who couldn’t laugh at the Sargent portrait of an English gentleman, stern and austere in his riding habit, as the gentleman slowly reveals that he likes nothing better – in a dead-on British, upper crust accent – than to run around naked in the woods and cry out his sorrows draped over logs and leaves?  Sargent, who had been looking for the perfect English aristocratic subject, found it, right down to the eccentricities for which that class has always been (secretly) known – or at least as they exist in Durcan’s imagination.

In simple street dress, Molloy becomes the accomplished Madame de Pompadour, lover of a French king and political deal maker, gossiping about sex with Louis XV and the cut of her dress in her portrait, as though she were having coffee with you at the corner café. Her voice is shrill as she becomes Van Gogh’s indignant mother, “hot under the bra” that her son could be dubbed as “deranged” and defending his sanity before a less than stable-looking painting of roiling clouds and shifting landscape. Crowley morphs easily from Florentine dandy in a Renaissance portrait to Cardinal Richelieu, embodying the youthful self-centeredness of one, and the more strategic power-mongering of the other, with a change of voice and facial expressions that make it seem like there are entirely different people up there on stage. The director worked hard to keep the tempo theatrical and conversational, so even though one learns a huge amount during the show, it is done with exuberance, humor, and imagination.

To say much more about subject matter would give away the bulk of the evening’s entertainment, but suffice it to say, worlds are approached, created and dismantled beautifully, with the enormous help of Durcan’s dramatic monologues and the gargantuan talent of the actors. Molloy and Crowley are obviously having an enjoyable time up there, and their chemistry is palpable within the walls of the theater. In Give Me Your Hand, there are no swinging men in capes or bright lights, but the attention to a pure and luminous English language and a lot of great art make this one of the more subtle shows now playing in New York, and certainly one of the most original.

“Give Me Your Hand” enjoying a limited run through April 1st at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011. For ticket information visit http://www.irishrep.org or call 212-727-2737.

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