Shining City by Conor McPherson. Directed by Robert Falls. Scenic design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Kaye Voyce. Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Sound design by Obadiah Eaves. Dialect coach Deborah Hecht. Cast: Brían F. O'Byrne, Oliver Platt, Martha Plimpton, Peter Scanavino.
Eavesdropping on the therapy sessions between Ian and John feels like a breach of privacy. Infidelity, jealousy, anxiety, and the reappearances of loved ones – weeks or months after their deaths – are topics not generally approved for public consumption. But with both doctor and patient determined to effect change, rest assured that progress will be made. Just one thing: Who's healing who?
That question reverberates through Shining City, which Manhattan Theatre Club is presenting at the Biltmore. Don't expect many clear-cut answers from Conor McPherson's somberly uplifting play. The truth of this situation, like most, resides only with a Higher Power, something neither man is sure he accepts, but that seems to be guiding both their lives.
So when the two start discussing ghosts, don't assume it's for purposes of entertainment or abstract symbolism. Both Ian (ostensibly the therapist, by the way) and John have an innate need to believe in something more substantial than just what they can see in front of them. But, on another level, they need to not believe it, so that they can maintain some control over their unruly lives.
In Shining City, much as in his 1999 Broadway outing The Weir, McPherson sees storytelling as the means to this particular end. The story in question might be a confession John issues from the relatively safety of Ian's couch, but it still has the power to free both its teller and its audience: John believes that his fascination with another woman, and his other attempts to pursue tempting romantic and sexual avenues, drove his wife to her accidental death.
As you might brush off the suggestion of causality between the two, so does Ian. Yet the emptiness behind his eyes suggests that he trusts in its possibility more than he's willing to say. And indeed, this is confirmed in scenes strategically placed between Ian and John's sessions, one in which Ian tries to break off his relationship with his girlfriend Neasa (Martha Plimpton), also the mother of his child, and another in which he picks up a rent boy (Peter Scanavino) for his own exploratory purposes.
Both scenes present cogent arguments for Ian's turning his back on the church to which he once seemed destined to devote his life, the touchstone event from which practically everything else in the play follows. But these scenes also chart Ian's development as parallel to John's, and it's their burgeoning relationship on which McPherson constructs this complex character study.
John begins as a broken man slowly collapsing under the weight of his guilt over his wife's death. But through Ian's encouragement, he gains strength and stature as he comes to terms with his own feelings, and relieves himself of responsibility he didn't actual bear. Platt demonstrates this by transforming physically over the eight-month period the play covers, beginning slumped and introverted and gradually becoming taller and more confident. Clearly, an intuitive actor is at work.
Unfortunately, Platt is unable to complete his characterization and give John the emotional life he needs to grow inside as well as out. Director Robert Falls is hampered somewhat by the play's format; therapy sessions usually involve both people sitting for extended periods, and that's the case here. But a performer thus encumbered must imbue the speeches (one of which runs roughly 20 minutes) with a musicality that will deter droning, and Platt does not. The result is that these scenes lull when they must compel, their sheer length detrimental to a show that must live in them because there's so little action.
But this does not prevent O'Byrne from excelling as the therapist who barely knows himself. He bears the difficult burden of being almost exclusively reactive around John but active around anyone else, and making congruous the transitions between the two. O'Byrne handles this expertly, painting with such subtle, repressed emotional colors that when he lets his true feelings out when alone with the hustler, you might find yourself floored that he had it in him.
This moment in Ian's evolution doesn't emerge from nowhere; it's just one step on a longer journey. True, it would have added meaning if Platt plied Ian's effect on John as expertly as O'Byrne incorporates John's impact on Ian. But the details are otherwise so well observed, from Santo Loquasto's gracefully comfy office set and Christopher Akerlind's warm and dusty lighting, down to a role as thankless as the hustler cast with an actor as unobtrusively ideal as Scanavino, that even this complaint becomes somewhat moot.
No complaints, however, can be leveled against the outstanding Plimpton. She implodes with anger and betrayal at losing her grip on the man for whom she's sacrificed everything. By turns pleading, bargaining, and crumbling, she's a physical manifestation of grief tempered by rage, despair held in check only by a hope that's in no way guaranteed. The focused force of Plimpton's portrayal is nothing less than stunning in a play that otherwise finds most of its shading in the sedate and the unknowable.
It's when McPherson is working in such fringe areas that the play excites the most; one of its most intriguing open questions is whether Ian actually knows himself better than we know him. McPherson leaves this, like so much of what transpires, open to interpretation; one can easily imagine that discussions among viewers about what happens and why might well approach the level of those spurred by O'Byrne's Broadway triumph of last season, Doubt.
Shining City, while more openly emotional and no less tightly constructed than John Patrick Shanley's brilliant play, lacks its breadth and depth, and the issues it raises of faith – in oneself, in other people, and in faith itself – are too well work to ever brand it a classic. But it has spirit aplenty, which - this season, at least - makes it even more satisfying than an equivalent 100 minutes spent with a psychologist.