“When it hits you, it just does,” says Joe (Jim Norton), the eldest of “Port Authority’s” three speakers, in a remark that could serve just as succinctly for Conor McPherson’s latest play, a Gate Theater of Dublin production now receiving its world preem in London. (A Dublin run follows next month.) To be sure, many will once again question — as they often have with this dramatist’s work — whether an evening of monologues constitutes a play, and no matter what your perspective on that debate, it’s difficult not to feel that this triptych of desolate voices marks a structural regression after the affective heights of “The Weir.” (At the same time, it’s far more satisfying than “Dublin Carol,” last year’s McPherson entry in London.)
But “Port Authority” leaves little doubt that, 30 this year, McPherson could well be the English-speaking theater’s leading chronicler of romantic loss. When his characters’ cumulative regret hits you, well, it just does.
The play’s ultimate impact isn’t necessarily clear from the outset, which seems arch and not a little self-conscious, especially with the three speakers carefully positioned on Eileen Diss’ deliberately placeless and abstract set. As the men take their turns center-stage across the 15 monologues, they never acknowledge one another, instead sitting by and awaiting their turn to step into Mick Hughes’ spotlight.
Kevin (Eanna MacLiam), the first to address us, is also the evening’s most consistently lively creation — a young Irishman caught up in a world of bands and booze and roommates known as “Speedy.” The Bangers and the Lepers are the groups doing the pub music circuit, but Kevin’s attentions are elsewhere. Much to his surprise, or so one feels, he is falling in love with someone who — against the odds — feels the same way in return: “She turned at one point and put her hand on my belly while we were looking at frozen pizzas. And for ages, we couldn’t move.”
Such novelistic detail suffuses McPherson’s writing, with some images so sharp — the sun is characterized as coming in through the windows with a “shriek” — that one sometimes wishes various moments could be shown, not just reported. But McPherson is hardly the first dramatist to find the power in solo recollection (Brian Friel and Alan Bennett have both reached career high points doing exactly the same), and only occasionally does one feel the writer providing an invisible prod. (Stylistically, too, one could wish for a few less rhetorical questions as kickers to the various turns.)
Oddly, the most gerrymandered sequence is the one at the play’s putative heart: the aging widower Joe’s account from his perch in an old age home run by nuns of a love offered up by a neighbor and then forever lost. (“I made a decision,” he says, his pragmatism tinged by defensiveness, “and your life runs its course.”) Slouching his way toward the audience, hands thrust deep in his pockets, Norton slightly italicizes the choked-back grief as he never did in “The Weir,” playing the not dissimilar role of the kindly Jack. He and McPherson together capture that sense of a present actively reproached by the past, but what’s missing is the bottomless emptiness beneath. As it is, the perf is that tiny bit too stagy to strike at the quick.
That’s never true of MacLiam, a vibrant young actor who has a high old time narrating Kevin’s party from hell, full of people “past caring”; the actor possesses a real gift for humor, not to mention for a furrowed brow. Playing Dermot, “Port Authority’s” very own Mr. Cellophane, Stephen Brennan never oversells the sometimes grotesque circumstances of “someone to whom things happened” — in his case an alluring new world of drugs, sex and travel for which, he realizes, he isn’t remotely cut out. His final soliloquy, in which he reflects on a marriage to the (unseen) Mary forged not in love but out of pity, catches with real authority at the throat.
Port Authority notwithstanding, by the way, the play features no bus terminals onstage: the journeys denoted in the title are clearly spiritual ones. At times, McPherson drops the passing hint that our trio may represent the same self at different stages in one life. Whether or not that’s true, the play articulates most fully that route famously ridden by Robert Frost. “Port Authority” is a tale of roads not taken from a writer whose own path once again seems firm.