NEW YORK – “Outside Mullingar” at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway home, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on West 47th Street, is John Patrick Shanley’s entertaining idyll of a play, a romantic comedy set in today’s Ireland in the rural midland town of Mullingar.
It is the first play Mr. Shanley has ever set in the Erin Isle of his ancestors. His father was a Shanley and his mother’s maiden name was Kelly, and somehow both landed in the 1950s in the Bronx, where Mr. Shanley was born 63 years ago.
Early on in his writing career, Mr. Shanley decided he didn’t want to be known as an Irish-American writer. He just wanted to be a writer – about everybody. Ironically, in the Bronx, many of his neighbors were Italian, and he cottoned to their natural cadences. Mr. Shanley, who started out writing poetry, loved their free ways with language. This all morphed into an early play, “American Italian Reconciliation,” and later the Oscar-winning movie script for “Moonstruck.”
Over 30 years, Mr. Shanley has written two dozen plays and 10 movie scripts, often staging his own writing. In 2005, his play “Doubt” won him a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. The subsequent film, which starred Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman and was directed by Mr. Shanley, won another Oscar for his adapted screenplay.
In “Outside Mullingar,” Mr. Shanley is dealing with his father’s Irish life. It turns out his father and his brother were shepherds in the 1920s in their rolling town’s fields. In “Outside Mullingar,” the farmer is the elderly Tony Reilly (Peter Maloney), and his 43-year-old bachelor son is Anthony (Brian F. O’Byrne). Anthony, on the play’s rainy morning, is fixing tea for the recently widowed neighbor Aoife Muldoon (Dearbhla Molloy) while the two oldsters fill the air with the dirgeful talk of funerals, farming and wills, and some cheery forecasts of their own predictable trips to the great beyond.
You don’t have to be told that Mr. Shanley’s play is a fey Irish tale of tangled life and death and love with many chaparraled obstacles. Tony would like to see the farm continue, but would rather sell it to an American cousin than leave it to Anthony. He doesn’t think that Anthony has a stick-to-itiveness that he believes a first-class landowner must have. He plans to leave Anthony the money he makes from the sale, though the real estate deal might not be enough for Anthony to live on.
Mrs. Muldoon is worrying about her daughter Rosemary’s (Debra Messing) being alone. Anthony would be a fine suitor, even if he is seven years her senior, but Rosemary is resistant because of some silly shenanigan occurrence the two had about 30 years ago.
Mr. O’Byrne, who usually acts in more serious roles, such as the original priest role on Broadway in Mr. Shanley’s “Doubt,” takes on this romantic role in a funny, quiet, subtly comic way. Late in the play – it is performed without an intermission – Mr. O’Bryne has a wonderful confrontation with Ms. Messing that brings them into exchanges about their feeling for one another over a lifetime.
Ms. Messing, making her Broadway debut in the play, is a delight as she matches Mr. O’Byrne line for line with insights and frequent laughs. Ms. Messing looks great as an Irish lass – you forget her recent popular role on TV’s “Will and Grace.” Here she has an acceptable Irish accent, glorious reddish-brown hair and a spirit and flair reminiscent of Maureen O’Hara in the 1952 John Wayne film “The Quiet Man,” directed by John Ford.
Mr. Shanley’s edgy script, as well as his humorous comic dialogue, will surprise you; they’re something that you don’t encounter in the Broadway theater these days. What Mr. Shanley does is capture the flowing language and the obsessive joy that some of the native Irish have. The play is also peppered with some wicked wit. Mr. Shanley makes the play continuously amusing and frequently bittersweet. It is smoothly performed by the cast of four, thanks to director Doug Hughes, who gets fine realistic acting out of the performers on stage.
At times, Mr. Shanley’s way with words can be exhilarating. His work is not cut from the swath of the Irish plays of yore like the angry Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock,” the unique genius of John Millington Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World” or the tragic “Riders of the Sea.” He is also unlike the recent mordant and dark generation of today’s Irish playwrights like Conor McPherson, whose “The Night Alive” was a success recently at Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater, and the plays and movies of Martin McDonagh, whose London revival of “The Cripple of Inishmaan” with Daniel Radcliffe arrives in April on Broadway.
Mr. Shanley’s “Outside Mullingar” is an American playwright’s original tip of the hat to his Irish heritage both for today and yesterday.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.