By: David Sheward
Romance is making a comeback on Broadway this season with a plethora of plays and musicals putting love matches at the forefront (First Date, The Bridges of Madison County, etc.). Perhaps the most Cupid-conscious work of all is John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar, now at the Friedman Theater as part of Manhattan Theater Club’s 2013-14 season.
Set in the rural Ireland of his ancestors and beautifully realized by John Lee Beatty’s sets and Mark McCullough’s lighting, it’s a tenderhearted, sharp-tongued comedy that combines the author’s trademark acidic edge with his softer, lyrical side as seen in his screenplay for Moonstruck. In that film, Nicholas Cage and Cher as a pair of mismatched loners stumble toward love, battling each other all the way. Here, Shanley creates two similar outcasts, both fast approaching middle age, reaching out toward each other but wary of the stings love can bring. It’s a heartbreaking and heartwarming valentine featuring some of the most moving acting and directing to be seen on Broadway in years.
Brian F. O’Byrne, the portrayer of isolated Irishmen in such plays as Shanley’s Doubt, Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West, and Conor McPherson’s Shining City, stars as Anthony Reilly, a dreamy chap who feels at home only in the fields of his family farm. Debra Messing (TV’s Will & Grace) is his neighbor Rosemary Muldoon. She has had a crush on Anthony ever since he pushed her when they were kids. Ostensibly, the plot device keeping them apart is a dispute over a strip of land overlapping their two properties, but the real sticking point is their own fears and stubbornness. There’s also Anthony’s crusty old dad (veteran character actor Peter Maloney), who’s thinking of leaving the farm to an American cousin, and Rosemary’s sage mother (Irish actor Dearbhla Molloy), who has just buried her husband at the start of the play and fears for her daughter’s future.
Shanley’s script is full of rich, Gaelic-flavored dialogue, mixing just the right amount of vinegary wit with the honey of poetic love talk. Director Doug Hughes perfectly balances the two elements. This is the kind of play where the characters can argue in colorful terms about seemingly trivial matters, such as Ireland’s boxing medals at the Bejing Olympics and the inconvenience of having to open two gates to get to one’s road home, yet they still discourse passionately on the nature of love, life, and mortality. "The middle is the best part," says Aoife, Rosemary’s mother, of life. "The middle of anything is the heart of the thing."
The four-person cast couldn’t be better. O’Byrne expertly limns the suppressed emotions of Anthony, a man unable to express or even identify his inner aches. Messing employs her expert comic timing to land Shanley’s devastatingly funny lines and wisely underplays Rosemary’s longing for her neighbor. Molloy is a warm and loving presence as Aoife. Maloney is wonderfully nasty as Anthony’s stone-hearted father. It’s all the more sob-inducing when his rough exterior cracks in a deathbed scene, which could easily have become overly sudsy. Maloney has been turning in consistently first-rate work on and Off-Broadway for decades, and it’s thrilling to see him in such a magnificent performance in this sweet Irish love letter.
Jan. 23-March 16. Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue-Wed 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm. Running time 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. $67-125. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com
Photos: Joan Marcus