Anthony Reilly and Rosemary Muldoon live on neighboring farms in the Midlands of Ireland. Their story is set in time by author John Patrick Shanley, as “recently”. As played by the perfectly cast Brían F. O’Byrne and Debra Messing, they look very comfortable in today’s clothes, but their attitudes and their lingo speak of a slightly softer time.
Mr. Shanley has returned to his subliminal roots, for he was actually born in the Bronx, and has spent most of his working life writing in New York and Hollywood. His play Doubt was not only a galloping commercial hit, but it won its creator half a dozen awards including the Tony and Pulitzer Prizes for 2005. His feel for the land of his ancestors is phenomenal, every bit as Irish as in the works of his contemporaries, Martin McDonagh (The Leeanane Trilogy) London born, but of Irish parents, and Conor McPherson (The Weir) born in Dublin.
Anthony and Rosemary, his two would-be lovers are constricted by impish demons that have kept them from expressing their feelings for each other for a very long time. They once played together as children but early on Anthony succumbed to fears and fantasies that have forced him into solitude and a dogged sense of duty to the farm he runs with, and mostly for, his aging father. The venerable Peter Maloney brings fire and ice into this irascible old man, who fears he’s near the end, and who has an epiphany in which he must resolve some unanswered questions about his relationship with his seemingly disappointing son. The strident Rosemary, living just across the disputed 40 meters of roadway that separates Reilly land from Muldoon’s, lives with her far more docile widowed mother. Modern as Rosemary appears with her abundant red hair flowing and her jeans and rain boots covering her shapely limbs, her very Irish Catholic upbringing has until now forced her to keep her feelings for Anthony repressed.
Director Doug Hughes, who has a bit of Irish blood in his veins courtesy of his late father Barnard Hughes, has moved these four characters in and around their cozy living-sitting rooms with an occasional side trip to the fields outside, always with great alacrity, and with enough quiet time to allow the beautiful Shanley language to reach our ears undiminished by clutter.
All four of the fine actors surprise us in one way or another. Mr. O’Byrne, remembered for his totally fierce performance as the accused priest in Shanley’s Doubt, here conveys all of Anthony’s fears and confusions and ultimately great reserves of tenderness. He gives us a leading man for whom we can root, and from whose growth we can take great satisfaction. Ms. Messing has built quite a following with a sitcom heroine called Grace in “Will and Grace” on which for several happy seasons she served as the perfect foil for Eric McCormack and Sean Hayes, able to sling the one-liners our way with perfect pitch. On the recent series “Smash”, she got into deeper water playing a lyricist-book writer whose personal life was something of a mess. But here, with hard work and application, she’s left a lot of Messing behind and turned herself into a sort of interesting Maureen O’Hara, the gorgeous leading lady with an iron will. And the accent she’s acquired along the way certainly convinces these American ears of mine. Charming, and very much part of her characterization.
Peter Mahoney, who’s been contributing good work for many seasons, has found himself a gem of a role in Tony Reilly, the fiercely partisan clansman who thinks of his neighbors, the Muldoons, what William Hatfield must have thought of Randolph McCoy.
Mahoney can be endearing and exasperating with just about everything in between as he avoids the old Barry Fitzgerald cuteness without sacrificing the comical moments he’s been provided by the author, as well as a number of his own invention. Later, when he must reveal himself more than he ever has in his long life, he allows us in and we are deeply moved.
In contrast, the stolid Dearbhla Molloy (yes, that’s a correct spelling) as Aiofe Muldoon (yes, that too) brings a very accepting grounded lady into the story, one who has learned to live with what is, and to be grateful for the blessings that come with just being alive. These are four very interesting characters, all admirable in their way, and their story is a rich and rewarding one, beautifully told and performed.
In this insanely turbulent world of ours, it’s comforting to know that even now, there are people whose problems are solvable, that there are still some who can listen to each other and work their way through to amicable easements of past peeves, to accepting help from others who see us with more perspective than we see ourselves. These seemingly simple tools can propel us all the way from acceptance to the deeper feelings of affection and even love.
The Manhattan Theatre Club production of Outside Mullingar is onstage at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue) NYC until March 16, 2014. Details and tickets.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.