Saturday, February 1, 2014

Broadway Review: John Patrick Shanley's "Outside Mullingar"

Outside Mullingar
Written by John Patrick Shanley, directed by Doug Hughes
Performances through March 16, 2014
Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY

O'Byrne and Messing in Outside Mullingar (photo: Joan Marcus)
Mismatched couples are the bedrock of John Patrick Shanley’s best work. Whether in comedies like Italian American Reconciliation and Moonstruck or a tragedy like Doubt, Shanley dazzlingly conjures protagonists who butt heads, tentatively or brutally, poetically or tersely, and culminating either happily or shatteringly.

Shanley returns to the well once again with Outside Mullingar, a play that could have been unbearably coy in lesser hands; but Shanley’s dexterous dialogue and cunning characterizations convey the essence of his Irish quartet—elderly father/middle-aged son, elderly mother/middle-aged daughter—and the introverted offspring’s final beguiling scene tracks an awkward romance finding its tentative way forward.

On the surface, Outside Mullingar—whose clumsy title refers to the town nearest the families’ adjoining farms—is a clichéd Irish romance of colorful characters speaking in colloquialisms about everything from love to inevitable death. The Reillys and Muldoons have lived side by side for generations, and as the play opens, elderly Tony and son Anthony return from the funeral of Chris Muldoon, husband of Aiofe and father of Rosemary. Aiofe arrives bemoaning her life and the “craziness” of her daughter, standing and smoking outside in the eternal Irish rain.

Thanks to plot devices that Shanley must have puzzled over—and which click satisfyingly if never fully plausibly—it turns out our middle-aged misfits Anthony and Rosemary are made for each other, even if youthful grudges, impulsive land sales and bizarre secrets have kept them at arm’s length over the years. The climax, in which Anthony and Rosemary confront each other after much dancing around the obvious, is a marvel of endearing simplicity that transforms would-be banalities into bittersweet poetry.

Mullingar works so snappily because Shanley enthusiastically embraces “Irish play” clichés, with characters full of bluster and blarney waxing poetically in the midst of daily drudgery and lifelong misery. Tony complains about the Irish team’s lackluster Olympic showing: “No gold. Two of them bronze. And all in boxing. Sure, we’re good with our fists. No surprise there.” Anthony bemusedly describes a dream: “Ancestors and more than that. The whole wide circus, the history of people. And me at the front of them, like the leader of a marching band. Jesus, I sat up in me bed and I didn’t know what to make of it. Here I am, alone as a castaway, and my night is spilling over with people.” And Rosemary knocks down Anthony’s excuse for not approaching her: “Half the world is lonely and you wouldn’t knock on my door about that. Look out the window at the rain and the gloom and the empty land and tell me why that hasn’t made you knock on my door, if loneliness made people knock on doors.”

Shanley’s dialogue, full of such wonderful trouvailles, keeps these people from falling into the dual ditches of sentimentality and melodrama, while Doug Hughes’ brisk staging (snazzily set by designer John Lee Beatty, magisterially lit by Mark McCullough and spiffily costumed by Catherine Zuber) finds ample breathing room for the overlapping tragicomic events. As the parents with a gift of gab as their birthright, Peter Maloney and Dearbhla Molloy are persuasive eccentrics. Although Maloney gets a lovely and heartfelt deathbed scene, Shanley for some reason denies Molloy one, a rare misstep in his lilting 95-minute lark.  

As Anthony and Rosemary, Brian F. O’Byrne and Debra Messing’s special chemistry is also a kind of anti-chemistry that makes us believe they are right for each other at the same time they might also be all wrong for each other. O’Byrne has no competition playing a taciturn bumbler of a man who manages to retain his dignity, even while confessing an embarrassing secret and contemplating taking a frightening leap into the unknown.

Messing—whose credible Irish brogue is the least of her onstage attributes—performs an even bigger miracle: making us admire and even adore this hardheaded woman whose heart is not nearly as black as she lets on: when the rain finally stops and the sky turns brilliantly blue, we cheer that this couple has come to its senses at last.

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