A review of John Patrick Shanley’s play “Outside Mullingar,” a romantic comedy about middle-aged social misfits in rural Ireland,
There has been no shortage of contemporary dramas about Ireland on American stages. But we’ve not seen many high-profile new plays, set anywhere, that are all-out, heart-on-your-sleeve love stories.
John Patrick Shanley pairs dark Irish beer with Gaelic sentimentality in his 2014 Tony Award-nominated tale “Outside Mullingar.” It is now at Seattle Repertory Theatre under Wilson Milam’s direction, in a rendering that highlights the script’s essential charms but also underscores its intrinsic weaknesses.
The show’s top asset is the thoroughly engaging Emily Chisholm. She projects bravado, vulnerability and gallows humor in the classic desperate-spinster role of Rosemary, an Irish woman nearing 40 who has held out her entire life for the strange and aloof boy next door.
By John Patrick Shanley, through May 17, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Bagley Wright Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; $16-$72 (206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org).
Set in central Ireland, the bulky first scene of this extended one-act is about parents and children, legacies and inheritances. Eventually we get to the more vital part: the push-me, pull-you romance in which, after long resistance, a truce is called, fears are banished and (I’m giving away nothing you won’t quickly guess) the sun bursts forth after gloomy downpours. (Geoff Korf’s lighting is an all-weather wonder.)
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We start out in the unkempt farmhouse (courtesy of master scenic designer Eugene Lee) of elderly, ailing widower Tony Reilly (Seán G. Griffin) who squabbles with his live-in, lumpish son Anthony (MJ Sieber) before they offer tea and sympathy to new widow Aoife Muldoon (Kimberly King).
The two families, the Reillys and the Muldoons, have long lived on neighboring farms, but not entirely in peace. Ownership of a bit of land between their turfs has been in perennial dispute and could affect Tony’s choice of who he’ll bequeath his spread to.
Aoife’s daughter and heir Rosemary, a scrappy individualist who is as socially impaired as Anthony, will get to decide the matter. But she’s held an absurd grudge against Anthony since childhood.
However, in rom-coms where there’s smoke (and Rosemary is an avid smoker) there is usually amorous fire. And in the rare, awkward and searching encounters between the neighboring, introverted misfits over the years, banked embers finally yield to flames (after some furious stoking).
The Irish-American Shanley (known for his delightful film romance “Moonstruck,” and trenchant morality drama “Doubt”) can sure and begorrah dish the bickering and the blarney, the Irish wisdom and gallows wit. And he doesn’t exactly take Freud’s comment about the Irish (“This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever”) to heart, rummaging around in the past to explain present-day neuroses.
“Outside Mullingar” lands some choice one-liners and a few references to Ireland’s recent economic surge and crash, amid the affectionate old hokum. And Milam’s adroit injections of physical comedy, as when one person reaches for a bucket while another offers a pot of Irish stew, are very effective.
A late-night reconciliation with a father who finally opens up to his son is schmaltzy but poignant, with the excellent Griffin once again drawing on his genuine Irishness and acting savvy. (King infuses her slender role with dignity and wily humor.)
But the weakness here, atop the clichés, is the imbalance between Rosemary and Anthony, in the characters and the performances. She is a textured woman who invites curiosity and concern, and is vibrantly realized by Chisholm.
But Anthony grows tiresome as a repressed, argumentative slug, with the occasional awkward burst of dreamy lyricism. Sieber settles into monotonously barking and bickering, and strikes too few sparks with Chisholm.
It is very difficult to share Rosemary’s certainty, that geographically and otherwise, he is made for her. Even in the end, in full sunshine.