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Shining City

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - June 9, 2016

Matthew Broderick and Billy Carter
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Not all ghost stories are created equal. Some involve actual, tangible specters. Others trade on the provably imaginary. Then there's the genre that lives somewhere in between, with spirits that can be sensed more than they can be proven. Finally, there's the variety where the ghost and the fear it inspires are one and the same: Its haunting is so psychologically complete that whether it exists or not is beside the point, because it's already made its life-altering impact.

It is likely the finest aspect of Shining City, now playing in revival at the Irish Repertory Theatre, that playwright Conor McPherson combines all of these spooky tales into one—and none—in poking and prodding at alienation in the modern world. McPherson has dealt with supernaturally terrifying tall tales before (as in The Weir and The Seafarer), but few are fueled by the same inner horror this one is: of never knowing who you are or whether you'll be able to have the connections with others you most crave.

The humanity beneath that spooky, ethereal shell is what makes the play work in the ways that matter most, and why, when treated with clear-eyed sensitivity, it's tough to screw up. The good news here is that director Ciarán O'Reilly hasn't—he's given it exactly what it needs to scare on the multiple levels it's capable of. All that stops this mounting from being as searingly effective as the memory-etching 2006 original Broadway production, which starred Brían F. O’Byrne and Oliver Platt, is one partial, but crucial, case of miscasting. We'll get to that shortly.

For the moment, what matters more is the case of Ian (Billy Carter) who's confronting his own existential crisis while trying to help others solve their own. Presently a psychologist operating out of Dublin, he was until recently a priest, and he was until even more recently serious about a woman named Neasa to the point of producing a baby. Now he's left them both and set up house in his office (the appropriately yawning and impersonal set is by Charlie Corcoran, and is solemnly lighted by Michael Gottlieb), while he tries to get his life and his work back together.

Billy Carter and Lisa Dwan
Photo by Carol Rosegg

We eventually meet Neasa (Lisa Dwan), as well as a patient named Laurence (James Russell), who have their own emotional hurdles to overcome, too. But Ian's clearest, and arguably healthiest relationship, is with another patient, John (Matthew Broderick). He's been thrown into personal chaos as the result of the death of his own estranged wife, and is positive that he saw her after her fatal car accident—a vision that has stoppered him but could, perhaps, also propel him forward, for better or (or perhaps and) worse. Assuming he believes in ghosts. Does he? Does Ian? Should either?

Once again, specific belief is beside the point; there are facts to consider, facts that suggest there's more afoot than either man would care to admit. Their joint sessions, however, in many ways as much therapy for Ian as for John, help them unlock necessary truths and make the necessary progress—even if there's a lingering doubt around the edges. As to whether that doubt and its accordant uncertainty is a good thing or a bad thing... well, that's what drives Shining City, and must be seen to be fully understood and appreciated (right up until the final, jarring current moment).

It's an intricate, messily elegant evening that ranks among McPherson's best works, and never loosens its hold on you even as it typically falls just short of moving you. (This, though, is an important conceit that links you further with the characters, though it takes a bit of getting used to.) And although it could easily become a gimmick, the lengthy collection of two-person scenes feeds the theme as well: You're forced to process everything through Ian's unique, myopic lens, experiencing what he does only as he does, and addressing his problems (and any potential solutions) on the terms he sets.

O'Reilly has not gone big with the material; though the Irish Rep, recently reopened on 22nd Street after a year-long renovation, now feels larger than it used to, this is a rendering that's more restrained and intimate than you might believe possible if you saw the Broadway version. But it's enveloping, and you too get the sense of being trapped within the walls no less than anyone else, to the point that you may find yourself wondering if you, too, are in danger of suffocating from the isolation.

Immensely aiding with this is Carter, whose performance is one of scarred intensity: His Ian is too fundamentally broken, at least at the start, to rustle up the piquant self-awareness he is constantly looking for in (and trying to elicit from) others. It's a vivid picture of someone who appears normal in public, but crumbles in private, which is just right for the at-a-crossroads Ian. If there are times slightly more size would be beneficial in conveying the scope of Ian's agony, overall, Carter's portrayal is beautifully judged.

Though they have considerably less stage time (only a scene each), Dwan and Russell reach almost the same level of achievement. They let us see how Neasa and John reflect and refract different portions of Ian's struggle, while remaining stark individuals; life is obviously no easier for either of them, though, if anything, both apply a darker finish that hints at a more total hopelessness. Maybe, they seem to ask, Ian isn't as far gone as he thinks he is?

The weak link, sadly, is Broderick, though it's not for lack of trying. He creates a definitive character here, flooding John with a tortured bemusement by which we're able to see where his issues lie, but not going far revealing their full impact on his psyche. Though Broderick has, in the recent past, looked to be on autopilot while onstage, he doesn't here, but he also doesn't depict the breadth of John's stasis and development. First he's tortured, but enough; then he's changing, but not enough; last, he's grown into his natural endpoint, but not enough.

For Shining City to function at full strength, we must see Ian and John as two sides of the same coin: doctor and patient, cynic and believer, optimist and realist—there are lots of options. But without a richer John, we only get one side of too much of the story, and Ian's own evolution is stunted as a result. Whether they know it or not, the two men need each other, and the play needs them both if it's going to shine its brightest and vanquish not just the shadow-choked lies we tell each other but the even scarier ones we tell ourselves.

Shining City
Through July 3
Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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