Aisle View: Moonstruck in the Old Country

Recent seasons have seen a dependable stream of first-rate Irish plays making their way to Broadway and off. (One of the finest, The Cripple of Inishmaan, has just announced its third major New York production--and first on Broadway--in April, bolstered by the presence of one Daniel Radcliffe.) The newest hails not from the old country but from Bronx-born scribe John Patrick Shanley. Outside Mullingar is one of those generations-of-country-folk-on-the-old-farm plays, and it's dandy.

Here we have a tale of destiny and death, mixed with an offbeat moonstruck romance. Mr. Shanley--a Pulitzer, Tony and Oscar-winner for his 2004 play Doubt--first attracted widespread acclaim with his screenplay for the 1987 Brooklyn-based charmer, Moonstruck. I don't know that he's tried to charm us in this manner in the interim, but with Outside Mullingar he captures the same sort of magic.

Mullingar is a small town in Ireland. (It was referred to in Doubt, and is mentioned frequently by James Joyce in Ulysses and elsewhere.) The action--which takes place on two adjacent farms--starts following a wake, as an elderly farmer and his awkward forty-something son entertain the widow neighbor and her awkward thirty-something daughter. Midway through the play, the widow dies; as the climax nears, the father dies. This leaves two awkward loners in the bogs, tending their separate lands. But there is a tie between the pair--it turns out that the boy pushed the girl into the mud, back when she was seven--which has festered and grown and bloomed over the decades. There must be something about the Irish; that is, the Irish characters who turn up in modern-day plays.

Shanley is well-served by his cast. Debra Messing is a comic delight as the daughter Rosemary, with reservoirs of warmth hidden within a cold and forbidding exterior. When she sees fit to deliver an ultimatum--be it to her mother, the farmer, or the farmer's son--she assertively points her finger at them as if it's a wand filled with black magic. (Theatergoers who've been around long enough might see flashes of Colleen Dewhurst in the performance, which in this case is high praise.) While Messing is best known as the Emmy-winning star of Will & Grace, she has theatrical roots with Manhattan Theatre Club and Shanley: she began her career with them in 1993, as understudy to Mary-Louise Parker in Four Dogs and a Bone.

Brian F. O'Byrne--who has given memorable performances in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West, The Coast of Utopia and especially as Father Flynn opposite Cherry Jones in Shanley's Doubt--plays the son. Byrne is funny and touching, as stolid as a potato but with the inner soul of a honey bee. (Shanley writes his characters into a discussion of honey bees and flowers that swerves from the quaint to the ridiculous to the romantic.)

Dearbhla Molloy, the Abbey Theatre actress who brightened the original Broadway production of Dancing at Lughnasa and the 2008 Atlantic Theater Company production of The Cripple of Inishmaan, and who starred in the London premiere of Doubt, needs only to hobble onstage--she's on crutches here--to bring instant authenticity to the production. As in the past, Molloy is a prime asset. Peter Maloney, a veteran character actor familiar from dozens of plays and films, comes into his own with a fine job in what seems to be his first star-level role in more than forty years. He is just right as the crusty, dying Irishman.

Outside Mullingar is another homegrown production of Manhattan Theatre Club, which has now produced ten Shanley plays. Director Doug Hughes, also from Doubt, keeps the action moving smoothly between the four sets and sustains the mood over one hundred intermissionless minutes. Not the least of Outside Mullingar's delights is the rain-soaked scenery by John Lee Beatty, which provides its own magic in the final scene.

Mullingar is admittedly not quite so imperishable and rarefied as Leenane or Inishmaan, no. But Messing and Byrne are likely to leave you with a moonstruck glow.