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Conor McPherson’s Shining City is usually described as a ghost story, but its principal characters are haunted by more than mere phantoms. They’re struggling for emotional connection and spiritual meaning, and their desperate attempts to achieve it form the heart of this moving drama. Unfortunately, the Irish Repertory Theatre’s production, the first New York revival since the play was staged on Broadway a decade ago, mostly emphasizes the work’s static qualities.
Much of the evening concerns the interactions between Ian (Billy Carter), a fledging psychotherapist who has left the priesthood, and his first patient, the middle-aged John (Matthew Broderick). John’s wife was recently killed in an automobile accident and, in the house they once shared, he’s been seeing her ghost, clad in the expensive red coat he had bought her to atone for his adulterous pursuits. Guilt-ridden and terrified, he’s now taken refuge in a bed-and-breakfast.
We soon learn that Ian has his own troubles. In the only scenes not depicting the therapy sessions, we witness him breaking up with his bereft girlfriend Neasa (Lisa Dwan), with whom he recently had a child, and tentatively preparing for his first sexual encounter with a man (James Russell), a hustler he met in the park.
As is often the case with McPherson’s works (The Weir, The Seafarer, The Night Alive), much of the play is composed of lengthy monologues, here delivered by John as he describes his midlife-crisis marital misadventures and an ill-advised excursion to a brothel. Peppering his lengthy speeches with frequent expletives and plaintive utterances of “You know?,” he lays bare his emotional desolation while Ian mostly remains silent.
The drama is an actors’ showcase, and it’s here that the production, directed by Ciaran O’Reilly, falls short. While Oliver Platt fully inhabited the role of John in the original Broadway production, Broderick seems to be skimming its surface. He certainly has his Irish brogue down pat, and he’s effective with the more comic elements, such as when his character describes his humiliating beating by a pimp at the house of ill repute. But Broderick never effectively conveys John’s truly tortured soul, coming across as vaguely uncomfortable rather than anguished. He speaks his lines in a monotone, with even his repeated use of the F-word failing to have much impact. It’s a problem that has unfortunately plagued much of this talented actor’s stage work in recent years.
Carter is much more effective as the similarly emotionally wounded therapist, who would like nothing more than to believe that John has seen an actual ghost, if only because it would prove that there is, as he puts it, “something else.” He’s not only compelling in the scenes in which his character lays bare his own inner agonies, but also in the lengthy passages in which he’s merely reacting to John’s soliloquies in low-key fashion.
Dwan and Russell make strong impressions in their single scenes, with the former, recently seen in an acclaimed solo performance of several short Beckett plays, particularly moving as the spurned lover.
The physical aspects of the production — staged in the company’s theater following a handsome, multimillion-dollar renovation — are sharp, with Charlie Corcoran’s properly shabby set and Martha Hally’s character-defining costumes enhancing the proceedings. And the play’s startling final moment packs as much of a punch as ever. But it’s unlikely you’ll come away from this Shining City feeling nearly as haunted as you’re supposed to feel.
Venue: Irish Repertory Theatre, New York
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Billy Carter, Lisa Dwan, James Russell
Playwright: Conor McPherson
Director: Ciaran O’Reilly
Set designer: Charlie Corcoran
Costume designer: Martha Hally
Lighting designer: Michael Gottlieb
Music: Ryan Rumery
Sound designer: M. Florian Staab
Presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre
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