The dead continue to haunt the living in the very particular cosmos of Conor McPherson, but anyone expecting his new play, “Shining City,” to be a gloomy downer is in for a surprise. In his first play in four years — and, perhaps more importantly, his first play since McPherson, a self-confessed alcoholic, abandoned a life of drink — the Irish dramatist has turned his glisteningly acute eye to the urban Dubliners who exist at some remove from the rural pub-dwellers of “The Weir.” And if he once again hears a lonely song being played behind his countrymen’s bluff and bluster, the play comes laced with a compassion that makes the moment-by-moment experience of it a near-constant delight. (Show has been extended at the Court until Aug. 7, before transferring to the Gate Theater, Dublin, in September.)
Many are likely to recall little about “Shining City” beyond the final coup de theatre, so jolting is the play’s close. But even if you feel, as I do, that the ending is a contrivance and a trick rather than thematically ingrained (Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” achieves the same effect far more organically), the conclusion is sure to be just one talking point for a play that could turn out to be considerably more commercial than “The Weir,” particularly outside Britain and Ireland.
“The Weir,” for one thing, was rooted in Ireland’s distinctly oral, folkloric tradition, as traditionally passed on at the nation’s favorite gathering point: the pub. “Shining City,” by contrast, is set throughout in the newly leased consulting rooms of Dublin therapist Ian (Michael McElhatton). The milieu in itself widens the appeal to auds the world over who may themselves have embarked upon the process in which fiftysomething salesman John (Stanley Townsend) is newly engaged.
John is in mourning for his late wife, who was killed in a car crash. But if John couldn’t have prevented that tragedy, he certainly could have done something about his own philandering. He believes it contributed to her death. And as his story pours forth across three of the play’s five scenes (no intermission), John relates a profoundly moving portrait of a troubled marriage that has resulted in a loss for which he, as an adulterous husband, must share in the blame.
Nor will John ever find peace for as long as the ghost of his wife, Mari, is visible to him, wearing the very coat he bought her not long before. “Is she trying to hurt me?” he asks Ian, minutes later rephrasing the thought. “Maybe she’s … Maybe she’s just trying to save me, you know?”
At first, it’s hard to know what to make of the auditor to all this, Ian, the counsellor who isn’t exactly a problem-free zone. A former Catholic priest who has lost his faith, Ian also has lost his sexual bearings. Early on, we see him struggling to sever ties to Neasa (Kathy Kiera Clarke), the rampaging woman with whom Ian has had a baby. Two scenes on, and Ian is making tentative physical advances to Laurence (Tom Jordan Murphy), the younger rent boy whom he has brought back to his rooms.
In outline, “Shining City” could be thought to suffer a bit from the “physician, heal thyself” syndrome: As soon as John starts talking, you are equally curious about the reserve of a listener, Ian, who clearly has stories to tell all his own.
But McPherson is far too shrewd and alert a writer to allow his story in any way to turn schematic. One certainly notes the skill with which various events turn out to shadow others: The first scene details a grievous if unanticipated loss, while the second chronicles the inevitability of a loss that much more painful for its participants’ full awareness of their inability to stop it.
And at every turn, the dictates of the heart wreak havoc in the ordered (or not) lives of ordinary people, whom McPherson invests with just enough wisdom to allow them the gift of words but not so much that the play at any point turns sanctimonious.
For years, McPherson was directed by Court a.d. Ian Rickson (his able designer remains Rae Smith, who also did “Dublin Carol” and “The Weir”), and one wonders whether the dramatist isn’t having a bit of fun by naming the therapist Ian, given the intimacy the two men must over the years have shared. But for the first time in my experience of his work, McPherson’s direction on this occasion is the equal of his writing. Though Clarke may struggle a bit with a part made even more shrill by its concentrated brevity, the men are all terrific. Murphy, a Broadway Tony winner for “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” makes so suggestive a figure out of Laurence that one almost wishes this mysteriously bandaged pickup had a play all his own.
But “Shining City” belongs in the end to the duets that are played by McElhatton and Townsend, no matter how many virtuosic solos the burly, immediately audience-embracing Townsend sends to the last row of the balcony. (On the evidence of his gift for garrulous self-correction, not to mention the stop-start patterns of anxiety-laden speech, the actor clearly is ready for Mamet.) The one as indrawn with desire as the other is waiting to let a life of suppressed guilt come pouring forth, the two men find the poetry in those quiet lives that McPherson yet again lets cut to the quick.