Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 23, 2014
Outside Mullingar by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Doug Hughes. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Mark McCullough. Original music & sound design by Fitz Patton. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Dialect Coach Stephen Gabis. Cast: Brían F. O’Byrne, Debra Messing, Peter Maloney, Dearbhla Molloy.
True, if anyone could pull off such a coup, it would probably be Shanley, who's been demonstrating since Danny and the Deep Blue Sea 30 years ago a uniquely brusque perceptiveness of the human condition as it befits male-female interactions: everything has several layers of additional meaning, ranging from the comedic to the cynical to the sinister. And even when Shanley has explored more sober territory (particularly in recent years with his Pulitzer Prize–winning Doubt and its follow-ups), he's frequently managed to find creative ways to turn out compelling battles between the genders.
But Outside Mullingar, which has been directed by Doug Hughes (also of Doubt), does not start out that way. Set in the Irish Midlands, it at first presents itself as a typical "problem" play: the problem in this case being that the elderly Tony Reilly (Peter Maloney) apparently does not believe his 42-year-old son Anthony (Brían F. O'Byrne) is capable overseeing the estate and the farm when he's passed on. Certainly the discussions Tony has with neighbor Aoife Muldoon (Dearbhla Molloy), whose own husband just died days earlier, suggest as much.
The stresses run considerably deeper, however: back some 30 years to when a disagreement between the two families led to 40 meters in the center of Tony's driveway ripping apart the bonds (and common sense) they'd previously shared. And now that Anthony and Aoife's daughter, Rosemary (Debra Messing), are in theory ready to inherit the land and the troubles that go with it, the time would seem to be right to heal old wounds. (After a few more doses of salt are poured on them, of course.)
He does that not a moment too soon. Too many of the earliest scenes are consumed with the whos and whats of the conflicts, with much of the play's first hour absorbed in bickering about the land, Anthony's fitness to take over for Tony, and the validity of Rosemary's gripe with Anthony and his family. The human struggles that should be kept front and center too easily get lost, and we see everyone as just plain unpleasant rather than as tortured — and as fascinating — as they really are.
Once that changes at about the halfway point, when the various key pairings are forced to confront their joint attraction, the intermittently amusing play becomes an indisputable winner: clear, tender, and hilarious by turns, but always honest. The final scene, in which Anthony and Rosemary can no longer tiptoe around the unspoken barriers between them, is a true tour de force, giving both O'Byrne and Messing golden opportunities to come into their own and let their characters win each other's affections — and ours.
O'Byrne is marvelous at plumbing Anthony's complicated depths, and carving out a man who's only just barely come to grips with the restrictions of his own solitude. Anthony, whose was crushed at 16 by another girl named Fiona, has good reasons to have closed himself off, and O'Byrne makes you feel them as he juggles his first love of Rosemary with the back-to-back agonies of watching his father slip away before his eyes and having to pick up the pieces afterwards. Yet underneath it all is an undercurrent of mildly touched devotion and reluctant strength that pay off beautifully once Anthony has no choice but to reveal the scariest parts of himself to Rosemary.
She, alas, does not need to evolve similarly, so it's a bit more difficult for Messing (Will and Grace and more recently Smash, both on NBC) to make an equivalently piercing impression. Spark and spunk she does not lack, though, and those are the qualities most crucial for Rosemary. Her sparring with Anthony is paint-strippingly acerbic, leaving the one in charge forever in doubt, and Messing has enough chemistry with O'Byrne to make Rosemary and Anthony's relationship soar when it needs to.
Maloney and Molloy have much less stage time, and tend to come off as ornamentation, but they give it their all: Maloney is quietly touching in showing how a father learns to love his son too late, and Molloy's deadpan deliveries and effortless facility with exposition keep the spirits and the pace up. John Lee Beatty's set does as well, rotating and sliding through a handful of locales, though it can read as too energetic for the laconic existence it's supposed to outline. And though Hughes has done excellent work with the actors, a more consistent feel throughout might smooth over the bumpiness of Shanley's complete journey.
Even if getting there is not quite half the fun in this case, the destination is a worthwhile one. Watching how this quartet recognizes, then attempts to correct, their mistakes toward others and themselves is genuinely fulfilling, even if so much of it straight off the rom-com schematic. (The question isn't whether this will be a movie starring Julia Roberts, but when that movie will be made.) But like the best examples of any genre, Outside Mullingar never gets mired in what flaws it has; if it's not thoroughly successful, it's nonetheless enchanting when, where, and with whom it counts most.