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Ages of the Moon

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Stephen Rea and Sean McGinley.
Photo by Ari Mintz.

For Ames and Byron, the two suddenly lonely aging guys in Sam Shepard's play Ages of the Moon, celestial bodies aren't much more comprehensible than the softer, but equally heavenly, kind they deal with on Earth. A rare total eclipse of the moon provides the opportunity for reflection, but may not a big part of their joint problem be the eclipsing they've let occur in their own lives?

That Shepard handles the men's burgeoning concerns about life, the universe, and everything with grace and comedy is not surprising. Nor, ultimately, is the play itself, which tries to make a show of being unpredictable, but never sets its sights much higher than being a feel-good buddy flick for and about the over-60 crowd. But no matter: Both the play and Jimmy Fay's Abbey Theatre production of it, which just opened at the Atlantic Theater Company, are so finely wrought that even the familiar can shine as brightly as a full... well, you know.

Ames (Stephen Rea) and Byron (Seán McGinley), however, are dim about women: what they want, what they need, and (especially) how to live without them once they're gone. Byron's arrived at Ames's secluded country retreat following the breakup of Ames's marriage due to a passing infidelity; Byron's separated from his wife, too, for darker reasons. The men have been friends for decades, sharing the comings and goings of their various flings and flames, an addictive distate for the mysteries women thrust upon them, and a fondness for bourbon.

All these elements - plus a combative ceiling fan - play crucial roles in Shepard's sharp-eyed exploration of smart men behaving stupidly. Though the ostensible pilot light for the action is male-female romance, and that doesn't lack impact (especially in a moving late speech by Byron about the aftermath of his marriage), far more bracing is the men's relationship with each other. It swerves between caustic, violent, brotherly, and soul-mate searing, often within a single exchange as the two try to discover who they are and what brought them here.

Shepard posits many tasty ideas - Byron and Ames are two halves of a single existence (Byron seems to have magically experienced many crucial moments in Ames's life), they're considered thinkers one moment and gun-toting animals (let's just say things don't end well for that fan) - but settles on the notion that they, like all men, can't be easily defined. Most germane is their burning curiosity to evolve beyond creatures who just look at the moon, but they're both married to the understanding that they probably can't.

Rea and McGillin are an electric pairing, the former's rough-and-ready brashness a pungent alternative to the latter's low-key common sense. But both convince utterly as world-weary dopes at the end of their chains, with each facing the possibility (in a different, debilitating way) that their preferred companionship is gone and they might have to spend the rest of their lives with (gasp) each other.

Fay's direction is to-the-point forceful, surging as steadily as a high tide during a storm, and Brien Vahey's dilapidated shack set and Paul Keogan's light flesh out the boundaries of an equally unsteady world. But it's Shepard, Rea, and McGillin who most severely illuminate the shadowy interiors of men who'd prefer to remain enigmas, living and loving without fear of the consequences. That won't stop the inevitable from arriving, of course, but it may make it easier to cope with once it does.

Or maybe not. Ages of the Moon reminds that men, believe it or not, have feelings, too, and even if they can't be understood by women - or understand them in return - they're as driving a force as the moon itself has been since the beginning of time. Shepard stops just short of declaring which he and his characters feel is the more mysterious, but Ages of the Moon makes the journey to that inconclusive conclusion at least as enjoyable and enlightening as a night spent stargazing.

Ages of the Moon
Through March 7
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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