Hitting a sweet spot that recalls his Oscar-winning screenplay for Moonstruck, John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar is a charmer of a play about a hesitant romance stalled by petty grievances and misunderstandings. Unapologetic sentimentality without too much treacle isn’t easy to do, but the playwright pulls it off with confidence. In his first work set in Ireland, he lovingly tends the roots and tills the soil of his ancestry, spinning a tale suffused with melancholy humor and a deep yearning for heart, home, land, faith and a sense of belonging. It also provides wonderful roles for Brian F. O’Byrne and Debra Messing, the latter making her Broadway debut.
The production reunites Shanley with Manhattan Theatre Club, director Doug Hughes and lead actor O’Byrne after they memorably teamed on the playwright’s Pulitzer and Tony-winning 2004 drama Doubt. However, the tone could hardly be more different from that taut morality play about a Bronx nun who goes on a pitiless crusade against a priest she suspects of pedophilia, based only on her intuition. Charges are leveled here too – of belligerence, stubbornness, coldness and crippling fear. But Shanley is in an altogether mellower mood, pouring his compassion into soulful characters whose ingrained pessimism and awareness of death can’t mask their wistful attachment to life.
The play opens in the immediate wake of a funeral, with the first of designer John Lee Beatty’s finely detailed settings taking us into the messy kitchen of pensive Anthony Reilly (O’Byrne) and his crotchety father Tony (Peter Maloney). An old wood-burning stove sits next to a dirty sink stacked with dishes, while drizzling rain falls outside the window in a lonely rural Midlands area that rarely sees the sun. Out of politeness, Anthony has rashly invited their freshly widowed neighbor Aoife Muldoon (Dearbhla Molloy) back for tea, and the banter between the cranky old woman and Tony becomes almost a contest to see which of them is closer to the grave.
Neither Aoife nor Tony come equipped with a filter, so some prying soon reveals that the old man isn’t planning on leaving the farm to his son, despite 42-year-old Anthony having put in years of labor and modernization efforts. “You don’t stand on the land and draw strength from it as I do,” says hypercritical Tony, confessing that he sees too much of the crazy family of his late wife in their son. His plan instead is to sell the farm to an American nephew who wants to come to Ireland and find a bride. However, the agreement depends on restitution of a 40-meter strip of land that divides the Reilly property and now belongs to the Muldoons.
While Aoife’s quarrelsome daughter Rosemary (Messing) has been outside smoking in the rain through all this, she doesn’t take kindly to news of Tony’s intentions. Seemingly nursing a grudge since Anthony knocked her down and left her weeping when she was six, Rosemary actually has other designs on her neighbor. But waiting for the shy eccentric to catch on requires superhuman reserves of patience from her. In the meantime, she sets Tony straight on the gross injustice he’s preparing to commit toward his son, displaying a fiery passion that makes her mother smirk with pride.
These are delightful characters, thorny and often bitter but full of feeling, and Shanley has a poet’s ear for the lyrical music and twinkly humor of their dialogue. He and Hughes show unerring control in modulating between playful and somber moments, notably in an exquisite scene between father and son in Tony’s bedroom, when the old codger exchanges his orneriness for sincere repentance. Rich with sorrow and all the complicated friction and affection of fathers and sons, it’s beautifully played by both actors, and capped by a visual grace note from Beatty and lighting designer Mark McCullough that is heartbreaking.
It’s a mark of the robustness of Maloney and the sublime Molloy’s characterizations that while both of them appear only in early scenes, their presence lingers.
Any fool who’s ever seen a romantic movie can guess where Outside Mullingar is headed, but that doesn’t lessen its pleasures. The extended final scene between Rosemary and Anthony is enjoyable precisely because the denouement is such a long time coming. It requires both characters to cross a chasm of frustrating incomprehension, superstition and stilted communication – even if it does entail a revelation from Anthony that lathers on the whimsy a bit thick.
While Messing’s accent is not the most consistent, she’s both feisty and funny here, not to mention the picture of a red-haired Irish country rose. She nails all the contradictions in depressed Rosemary’s antagonistic approach to Anthony, while steadily opening a window to the longing that’s been simmering inside her for years. O’Byrne is superb as a man imprisoned by his own nervousness and lack of self-worth. He admits to being terrified of the pain of love, choking on his words and twitching with untapped depths of emotion. “I’m cracked,” he pleads, desperately lobbying to continue in his joyless solitude.
Both Anthony and Rosemary make occasional mention of their desire to get “beyond Mullingar.” But the play ultimately is about them accepting who they are, where they come from and where they belong, making it a tender paean to rural life, to the Irish spirit and to the enduring belief that love will find a way.
Venue: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York
Cast: Brian F. O’Byrne, Debra Messing, Peter Maloney, Dearbhla Molloy
Director: Doug Hughes
Playwright: John Patrick Shanley
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Mark McCullough
Music & sound designer: Fitz Patton
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club