'Ages of the Moon'

Sam Shepard's play turns on the dolefully funny but emotionally arid ruminations of two old coots.

Aside from a single, gut-wrenching aria of grief at the very end, Sam Shepard’s two-hander “Ages of the Moon” presents itself as the dolefully funny but emotionally arid ruminations of two old coots as they sit on the front porch, getting drunk and watching the sun go down on their sorry lives. Reprising their roles in a sterling production originating at Dublin’s Abbey Theater, Stephen Rea and Sean McGinley expertly chew on Shepard’s hardtack dialogue, extracting every last drop of bitter humor and spitting out the gristle. But the spittle falls on very dry ground.

Although this theatrical landscape is too shallow to hide the bones of a “Buried Child,” it has interesting surfaces, boldly rendered in Brien Vahey’s surrealistic set and bleached out by the dry-as-dust tones of Paul Keogan’s sere lighting.

The dominant structure in this flat, unforgiving Western terrain is the weather-beaten shack where Ames (Rea) has retreated to lick his wounds after his wife kicked him out of their house for some adulterous indiscretion he can’t even recall.

“Exiled. Never to return no more, no more,” Rea intones in the lachrymose notes of a born sinner caught in the act. Letting his hound-dog eyes and caved-in chest define his existential angst, Rea is the soul of misery. Too honest an actor to reach for feelings of remorse conspicuously missing from Shepard’s character portrait, thesp obligingly wallows in self-pity, whining his discontent like a whipped dog.

Joining Ames on the broad front porch that looks out onto nothing worth looking at is Byron (McGinley), an upright fellow who has traveled a fair distance to listen to his old friend’s grievances.

In McGinley’s quietly sturdy perf, Byron emerges as the ideal sounding board. Neither forgiving nor condemning, he listens patiently, merely raising a discreet eyebrow at Ames’ lame excuses and protesting only when the distraught diva turns a gun on him. Such friends are truly golden.

Helmer Jimmy Fay wisely lets Shepard’s laconic dialogue set the pace and carry the play wherever it wanders, which is not very far from the central theme of women — or “wimmen,” as the regional dialect would have it. Like the moon they wait up to see, women are distant, desirable and mysterious beyond man’s understanding.

Shepard writes the kind of man-talk that makes men nod their heads in silent understanding, even as it makes women roll their eyes. And insofar as it bristles with manly riffs on manly topics — from the fondly recollected triumphs of one’s wild youth to the indignities of one’s old age — “Ages of the Moon” should score with Shepard fans.

But for all the random bursts of humor and insight that take place on Ames’ front porch, there’s no sense of danger in the play, no hint of the existential sinkholes that normally lurk beneath the surface of a Shepard play. Only the bluesy feeling that these two sad sacks really need to get it together before the moon comes up and leaves them even more helplessly alone in the dark.

Ages of the Moon

Linda Gross Theater; 182 seats; $65 top

Production

An Atlantic Theater Company presentation, in association with True Love Prods., of the Abbey Theater production of a play in one act by Sam Shepard. Directed by Jimmy Fay. Sets, Brien Vahey; costumes, Joan Bergin; lighting, Paul Keogan; sound, Philip Stewart; fight direction, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Alison DeSantis. Opened Jan. 27, 2010. Reviewed Jan. 21. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.

Cast

Byron - Sean McGinley Ames - Stephen Rea

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