With his play Port Authority, which just opened at the Atlantic Theater Company, Conor McPherson demonstrates a singular knack for recreating just this experience. Both aspects of it are here: the numbing lows that are seldom elevated by the specific ramblings about work, life, and love that the three men here deliver for 90 minutes straight; and the surprise highs, when their words emerge from static to touch on some pungent insight into the complex workings of the heart that you're happy to have overheard.
Moments of the latter variety, however, are few and far between in this play, which McPherson has constructed entirely of monologues (15 of them). The stories of the three Dublin men - Kevin, in his youth (John Gallagher Jr.); Dermot, at midlife (Brian d'Arcy James); and Joe, in old age (Jim Norton) - intersect only vaguely, when they do at all, and the characters talking to or looking at each other is unheard of. All this is enhanced by the direction (Henry Wishcamper) and the set (Takeshi Kata), which embrace various definitions of the word "terminal," as though existence were no more than Purgatory, containing a single bench to support those hoping to hop the next bus to fulfillment.
That idea helps link this play to McPherson's other titles that have dipped into the supernatural, such as The Weir, Shining City, and The Seafarer (which ran on Broadway this past season). But the stronger connection is formed in the loneliness and fear each man must fight as part of his daily routine. From that standpoint, Port Authority is two-thirds of a compelling-enough evening.
The key exception is the story of Kevin, a shallow and callow lad on his own for the first time that McPherson and Gallagher fail to convincingly dramatize. Living in a rented house with a handful of other twentysomethings, Kevin is confronted with the twin prospects of regular marathon sex with a curly haired girl named Trisha and something potentially more special with one of his roommates, Clare, who's always going out with someone else. Kevin's quest, to determine which woman he wants and why, is perhaps rich enough for a teen-sensitive filmmaker (think John Hughes in the 1980s) to explore, but is drastically underpowered onstage.
At the other end of the age spectrum: Joe's secret desire for his wife Liz's friend, Marion, is tested when Joe and Liz must stay with Marion while Liz recovers from a serious operation. Despite covering dramatic ground similar to Kevin's, Joe's version takes on a much more human sheen - children, responsibility, and marriage vows automatically make any dissection of the nature of temptation much more powerful; the broader-ranging consequences are always at the forefront of Joe's confliction.
McPherson splits the difference in treating the hard-luck Dermot, who's tormented by the particulars of his cushy new job, both in his drunken tendency to stare at his boss's wife's chest during a party and when he learns the details of the circumstances under which he was hired. He survives hardship after hardship with the help of his wife's devotion, though he learns by the end that it comes from a different place than he might have suspected. Still, there's an unfettered honesty about her revelation to Dermot that makes theirs the one relationship that shows the compromises that can make any partnership work.
Much of this is because of James's monumentally understated performance, which pulls none of the obvious strings in painting a portrait of a stereotypical, working-class slob. He's so deadened - by drink, by his finances, by his unspoken hopelessness - that deflation and elation are barely distinguishable from one another. James makes any little burst a rare treat, one of those too-precious times when the everyday becomes extraordinary.
Norton finds plenty of unexpected energy in the been-there-done-that Joe, and evinces the strong grandfatherly spirit this trio of characters needs. Gallagher, who won a Tony Award last year for his performance in Spring Awakening, is overeager and impetuous, his plow-ahead personality and uncertain accent lending little credence to a young man who's discovering he's not as grown up as he thinks he is. But because Joe has seen everything, Kevin has seen nothing, and we see neither do anything, the differences in the actors' performances amount to at best minor differences in impact.
Paradoxically, what Port Authority needs is more of the fuel McPherson has deliberately eschewed: action. Letting the men take greater roles in their own stories, or even occasionally in each other's, would better prove the point that men always deal (or don't deal) with emotions in exactly the same way - no matter what happens, they never really learn. That would, of course, spoil the verisimilitude of eavesdropping on such personal reflections in the most public of places. But in a play tending toward the inert, it's preferable to having the shuttle to excitement arrive too late for anyone to board.