The Weir

Though it could hardly be called minimalist, "The Weir" has a straightforward, muscular eloquence that strips down drama to its most basic formulation: storytelling around the hearth. Conor McPherson's Olivier-winning play makes an auspicious L.A. bow under the sensitive guidance of Geffen artistic director Randall Arney.

Jack - John Mahoney Brendan - Ian Barford Jim - Paul Vincent O'Connor Finbar - Francis Guinan Valerie - Lindsay Crouse

Though it could hardly be called minimalist, “The Weir” has a straightforward, muscular eloquence that strips down drama to its most basic formulation: storytelling around the hearth. Conor McPherson’s Olivier-winning play makes an auspicious L.A. bow under the sensitive guidance of Geffen artistic director Randall Arney. The intimate venue is an ideal place to savor the material’s subtleties and quiet power, as well as the lovely performances.

Young playwright McPherson has created rural characters delightfully free of shtick. The talented cast responds with full-blooded, unfussy work that draws in the audience with its honesty and gentle humor — just as the tavern in which they interact draws the characters in from the cold. With its welcoming fire, tabloid clippings and framed picture of JFK (a sure sign you’re in Ireland), Karyl Newman’s set is a realistic Irish pub, homey and worn, in every detail evidence of the care and unaffected pride of its young proprietor, Brendan (Ian Barford).

Joining Brendan on this wind-lashed night are the irascible Jack (John Mahoney), who wears a sad self-awareness, and the more sheltered Jim (Paul Vincent O’Connor), single men on the far side of middle age who are as at home here as in their own front rooms. The news tonight is that a single Dublin woman has purchased a long-empty house in the area and has been seen touring the sights in the company of successful businessman Finbar, who happens to be married. The bachelors express their disapproval — and, inadvertently, their jealousy — even as they understand that there’s most certainly nothing to it beyond neighborliness and a bit of showing off.

The three partake of one in a long series of “small ones” (warming shots of whiskey), light up smokes and settle into a comfortable silence. Then the gusty night deposits Finbar (Francis Guinan) and Valerie (Lindsay Crouse) in their midst. The men casually attune themselves to the presence of this attractive, white-wine-drinking city woman, while Finbar indulges in a preening one-upmanship that the others tolerate with good humor. Although he’s not been a regular at this pub for years, Finbar’s ties to these men span a lifetime, and there’s a simmering rivalry between him and Jack — the made man vs. the unambitious man — that eventually comes to an explosive boil (but nothing that can’t be resolved with another small one).

Without making an issue of it, McPherson shows these country dwellers, Jack in particular, are well aware of the “local color” that inspires the dreaded seasonal influx of vacationing Germans — and that draws moneyed Dubliners like Valerie. But it’s that same local color, with its legends, “fairy road” and ghosts, that comes to life as the night unfolds, taking the small group to unexpected depths of emotion.

When Finbar, in his self-appointed role of tour guide, draws Valerie’s attention to photos on the mantel, he prompts a story from Jack, set decades earlier in the very house of which Valerie has just taken possession. Mahoney captures Jack’s glee in telling the ghost tale; Finbar and then Jim take their turns narrating similarly haunting yarns. But, as Brendan sensed at the play’s outset about the brewing storm — a “funny one,” he calls it — there’s something else at play here. This is the kind of night that puts in sharp relief the unforgettable, mysterious moments in our lives that touch upon truths at which we can only guess.

And so, moved by the easy hospitality and decency of her new friends, Valerie surprises them with a tale of her own. While it, too, has a ghostly element, there’s a more immediate, harrowing quality to her simple story, which Crouse delivers with quiet, breathtaking sorrow.

The fine 1999 Broadway production of “The Weir” emphasized the way each narrator’s story played upon the listeners’ faces. That wordless interaction remains a prime beauty of the play in Arney’s production, which also accentuates the rich silences its characters share. The superb cast taps straight into the tender heart of the text, their storytellers’ monologues never lapsing into tricksy theatricality.

In the central roles, Crouse and Mahoney are especially affecting, but there isn’t a false note in any of the performances, and a fine, wholly believable chemistry takes hold.

Mary Quigley provides lived-in, character-defining costumes, and the mournful mood is well served by Jonathan Burke’s unobtrusive sound design and Daniel Ionazzi’s atmospheric lighting.

But there’s also a deep, if guarded, hopefulness that emerges. Valerie’s story opens a confessional vein in Jack: Over a final drink, he relates a memory centering on lost love and the kind gesture of a stranger that “fortified” him when he most needed it. In his vivid description of the physical details of that memory, there’s the sense of Jack’s — and the play’s — climbing back into the world from the shadow realm, somehow renewed, clutching dearly to the true connections that sustain us. The main road may have left this rural community behind, but at its public hearth an open-hearted newcomer finds the real comfort of kindred souls. As Valerie assures the men when they are at a loss to ease her pain, “It’s nice just to be here.”

The Weir

Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles; 499 seats; $43 top

Production: A Geffen Playhouse production of a play in one act by Conor McPherson. Directed by Randall Arney.

Creative: Set, Karyl Newman; costumes, Mary Quigley; lighting, Daniel Ionazzi; sound, Jonathan Burke; music, Richard Woodbury, Michael Kirkpatrick; production stage manager, Alice Elliott Smith; casting associate, Mary Garrett; dramaturg, Amy M. Levinson. Producing director, Gilbert Cates; artistic director, Arney; managing director, Stephen Eich. Opened, reviewed Feb. 7, 2001. Runs through March 11. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast: Jack - John Mahoney Brendan - Ian Barford Jim - Paul Vincent O'Connor Finbar - Francis Guinan Valerie - Lindsay Crouse

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