"I never wanted to write about the Irish," writes John Patrick Shanley. He even insists in the introduction to his new play, "I’m not Irish." For half the price of a weekend in the country, you can catch him out in this whopper, and have a very good time doing it.
At first, "Outside Mullingar," now playing on Broadway, is everything you’d expect from a classic Irish comedy. It starts in a farmhouse kitchen just after the death of a neighbor, which gets the farmer thinking about the inheritance of his own land and sparks a big fight, most of it in the rain. A rift between farmer and son means emotions are keen, but outbursts aren't tolerated. Cue the line "A man with feelings should be put down." So it all comes out in razored sarcasm -- the meaner, the funnier -- or straight into a cup of tea, the source of all wisdom and solace.
That's the softer side of Shanley. If you were looking for the slick style of his "Women of Manhattan" or the pious voice of guilt in "Doubt," which won both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize, you won't find it here. This charming play reveals itself to be, despite all his resisting, a love story between Shanley and his once-distant kin.
The rom-com pace of things makes this no easy task, even for director Doug Hughes and the skilled Irish actors onstage. Take the wily old farmer, Tony Reilly (Peter Maloney), and his just-widowed neighbor, Aoife Muldoon (Dearbhla Molloy). In the first scene alone, Reilly’s got to buy back his own driveway from her, since he can't sell the farm without it; disinherit his son from the land, despite Aoife's objections; and set up the play's central conflict: His son, Anthony (Brian O’Byrne), will not marry her daughter, Rosemary (Debra Messing of "Will & Grace" fame, making her Broadway debut), despite her undying love for him.
The pair handle several quick-turn transitions with ease. Their deadpan expressions and seeming nonchalance, as they tug at their clothes and eat prop food, are terrific. During their repartee, the full-house audience laughs hard enough to drown out that next line you were dying to hear. When Tony bemoans getting old, Aoife says, "I know. It happened to me," to which Tony replies, "When the husband goes, the wife follows, it’s true. You’ll be dead in a year." Did anyone hear that? If you didn’t, that’s the sort of problem a playwright can learn to live with.
The trouble is, we already know they aren't long for this world, and when Aoife says of Rosemary, "If she'd been in the Olympics boxing, sure Ireland would have taken the gold," it's safe to assume Rosemary will get her man in the end. No spoiler alert here. Can't we have more angst and longing for a $146 orchestra seat?
Yet a little predictability never killed a rom-com, I reflect, still laughing. True, the plot’s resolutions are thrown at us like softballs at a Louisville slugger, but what's lacking in dramatic tension is made up for by a lyrical language that creates moments of revelation. In his final hours, as Tony seeks reconciliation with his son, he asks, "Am I proud of you too late?" The audience was silent except for some weeping from the vulnerable.
Anthony’s struggle against his own introversion, and his deepest fear, "the pain -- of love," are unnervingly palpable. As Rosemary pleads for him to open up to her, he says, "Maybe the quiet around a thing is as important as the thing itself." It's not a turning point, but in scene five of this seven-scene play, it marks the moment when Anthony and Rosemary start listening to each other. O'Byrne and Messing have spent much of the play anticipating their cues.
The comedy still bubbles up, but the closer we get to Anthony's (Shanley's) big cathartic moment, the more potent the play becomes. O’Byrne and Messing have begun to breathe, they become present, and when they do, they are brilliant together. Girl gets boy. We knew it would happen all along, but so what? We wanted it to.
Coincidentally, so did Shanley. At the age of 60, his own pent-up desire to connect with "his people" brought him to his ancestors’ farm and inspired the play. "I felt free, suddenly, free to be Irish," he writes. Rom-com or not, that is the big "event." It is living in this text, and we get to see the playwright discover and claim his identity.