by Ron Cohen · January 26, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #42: Ron Cohen looks at Outside Mullingar by John Patrick Shanley at Manhattan Theatre Club’s The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre until March 16.
John Patrick Shanley gets his Irish up in his new play Outside Mullingar, and it’s a beautiful thing to see and hear. It has the playwright expounding on one of his favorite topics, the circuitous ways of romantic love, something he has explored on and off with dexterity since his Danny and the Deep Blue Sea some 30 years ago and most notably in Moonstruck, his Oscar-winning screenplay of 1988 filled with battling Italians from Brooklyn. But Outside Mullingar, set in rural Ireland, has its own captivating freshness, reveling in the quirky ways the Irish persona, its mysticism and lyricism, written with all the assurance of a polished but still inspired dramatist. It‘s the same sort of confident dramaturgy that marked Shanley’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt.
The story concerns Anthony Reilly and Rosemary Muldoon, the offspring of neighboring farmers and now past the bloom of youth. They would seem to be ideal mates, except for Anthony’s excessively retiring nature, bruised by rejection from a girlfriend of times past and deepened by years of introspective peculiarities. Rosemary is strong-willed, hopelessly in love with Anthony, but proud at the same time and filled with an inner despair over his reluctance to woo. When Rosemary finally decides to make a forward attack for Anthony‘s love, the play explodes with grand unexpected comedy.
But Outside Mullingar is more than just a romantic comedy. Along with its delicious turns of plot, there’s a telling exploration of familial friction and love, as personified in the character of Anthony’s father, Tony, who threatens to not leave his son the farm, concerned the legacy will disappear because of Anthony‘s bachelorhood. When Tony, fatally ill and abed, confesses his own weaknesses to Anthony, it is one of the most enthralling moments I’ve witnessed on any stage of late.
Manhattan Theatre Club has given Shanley’s script an impeccable production. Director Doug Hughes effortlessly brings forth all the nuances and tenderness in the writing without stinting on its humor. He has guided his cast into fearless, impeccable performances, evincing to the full both the poetry and grittiness in Shanley’s characters. As Anthony, Brían F. O’Byrne never belittles or winks at the guy’s idiosyncrasies. Rather he makes them all part of a manly identity that you can’t help liking and even respecting. Debra Messing embodies Irish red-headed beauty. She‘s volatile yet wise, moody but appealing, formidable in temperament while yearning for affection. Peter Maloney is terrific as Anthony’s father, and simply breathtaking in the aforementioned confessional scene, and Dearbhla Malloy completes the cast in impressive fashion as Rosemary‘s newly widowed mother, whose brief moments of grief quietly tug at your heart. Also notable is the verisimilitude of John Lee Beatty’s set designs becoming suddenly poetic under the lighting of Mark McCullough.
In Outside Mullingar, Shanley -- faith and begorrah! -- has written a wonderfully entertaining play that can stand proudly in his canon, right beside such acclaimed works as Doubt and Moonstruck.