The ghosts that hovered over the rural pub regulars in Conor McPherson’s “The Weir” are no less a factor for the haunted Dubliners of the playwright’s “Shining City.” Reflecting with subtlety and compassion on the guilt, anxiety and restlessness of two lonely men seeking emotional and spiritual connections, this compelling drama has been staged with penetrating insight and an impeccable balance of humor and melancholy by Robert Falls. With a superb cast that digs deep inside naturalistically drawn characters, the final play of the Broadway season is one to savor.
It also shines a spotlight on the astonishing vitality and diversity of stage writing from Ireland. With Brian Friel’s complex reckoning of an artist with his talent, “Faith Healer,” and Martin McDonagh’s pitch-black satirical bloodbath, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” Broadway has ushered in three distinctive works from living Irish playwrights in a single week.
McDonagh and McPherson are contemporaries in their mid-30s, but the “Shining City” author is arguably closer in spirit to 77-year-old master storyteller Friel; underlining that kinship, both writers skillfully spin narratively and emotionally dense monologues. While McDonagh creates memorable characters, razor-sharp plots and dialogue that bristles with loony lyricism, he’s a showman whose work is chiefly about his own dazzling talent. McPherson is a playwright clearly thinking long and hard about what makes men behave the way they do.
The men in this play are catering company rep John (Oliver Platt), whose wife Mari recently died in a horrific car crash, and Ian (Brian F. O’Byrne), the therapist to whom he goes for grief counseling. Profoundly shaken by the loss, John has fled his house and retreated in unnerved solitude to a bed and breakfast after visitations from his wife’s ghost, still wearing the red coat he bought her as a guilt gift after abortive attempts at philandering.
Living in the somber wood-paneled confines of his rented office space — handsomely rendered by set designer Santo Loquasto and gently brushed by Christopher Akerlind’s lighting — Ian is plagued by his own demons.
A former Catholic priest, he has lost his faith in God. After fathering a child, he no longer wants to be in a relationship with the baby’s mother, Neasa (Martha Plimpton). Her stubborn refusal to accept that it’s over, and Ian’s blunt determination to distance himself from her, are played with aching intensity by the two actors. Plimpton provides a concentrated burst of angry desperation while O’Byrne shifts suddenly from patient professional mode to unyielding, wounding forthrightness.
Divided with elegant simplicity into five two-character scenes, the one-act play’s structure might have become schematic in lesser hands. John and Ian are shown meeting three times over the course of a year. Their encounters are punctuated by Ian’s scene with Neasa and another with a young rent boy (Peter Scanavino), who responds with unexpected tenderness to the painful awkwardness of Ian’s first hesitant advances toward a man. O’Byrne’s work in the play is consistently riveting, in this scene conveying such a terrified struggle that it hurts to watch.
The centerpiece of the play is a remarkably demanding confessional monologue from John, interrupted only by occasional nurturing encouragements — “OK,” “Mmm,” “Right” — from Ian. With his mix of sad-eyed schlubbiness and droll belligerence, Platt keeps the audience glued as he recounts the liberating outlaw feeling of meeting and communicating with a woman; the resulting detachment from Mari; and the awful, festering conviction that the tragedy was somehow dictated by his actions.
He reveals that they were unable to have children, dwelling resentfully on the exclusion of being the only nonparents at a social gathering. He talks about the depression engendered by a static situation and the irrational hostility toward his wife: “I didn’t kill her. But I might as well have.” It’s a beautiful piece of writing in which Platt sketches with restraint and sensitivity the blind, suffocating frustration of a man stabbing around in the dark for something more tangible.
The unforced parallel of that search with Ian’s, and of the two men’s existential fears, is what gives the play its uncommon delicacy. There’s also a surprising lightness and wit here that tempers the drama’s rueful nature. McPherson embraces both moral and metaphysical elements, the latter aspect manifested in an audacious stroke that some will find jarring while others accept it as a macabre yet weirdly poetic extension of the questions of spirituality, faith and external forces that plague the characters’ everyday lives.
As he showed in his lauded production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Falls has a rare gift for locating the grace in each character and for quietly unveiling the truths in a text, with that exploration equaled here by four wonderful actors. Playing two men cautiously approaching their next move, O’Byrne’s self-contained Ian and Platt’s more voluble character engage in especially textured interplay, but Plimpton and Scanavino also make indelible impressions in their single scenes.
The director wryly echoes the play’s sad, searching intelligence with world-weary folk-rootsy tracks by Neil Young and Byrds front man Gene Clark. These are heard while O’Byrne changes costumes and makes set adjustments between scenes, suggesting a man reordering his life, one day at a time.