Reviewed by Bob Verini
Through December 20
The committed theatergoer, confronted with the prospect of a play set in Ireland, may well inquire, “First of all, is it one of the light ones or one of the dark ones?”
It’s a fair question. Though so many works set in the Emerald Isle take advantage of the same thatched roofed, peat bog cottage settings, and reliable pipes-and-whistles and pat-a-pan drums in the interstitial music, most seem to fall within a spectrum, at one end of which are the daaarlin’ romances. Da, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, and Finian’s Rainbow (I know that one’s set in the U.S., but come on) essentially ride on their charm and blarney, though they often harbor serious side concerns.
Those old fashioned “well-made” pieces contrast sharply with the theater of O’Casey and Behan, in whose wake stages are now even more likely to take a walk on the grim side.
Martin McDonagh is the reigning king of the Irish downers; over a cup of tea, a grumpy woman and her ma will as likely inflict harm on each other (The Beauty Queen of Leenane) as share village gossip, and a cat can expect to have its nine lives used up pretty quickly (The Lieutenant of Inishmore).
John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar, now at the Geffen, is comfortably in the daaarlin’ vein, though it arguably owes more to the author’s own 1987 tale of Italian-Americans, Moonstruck, than to any genuinely Irish forebears. In both his Oscar-winning movie and the new play, social misfits of young middle age struggle to overcome self-erected barriers to romance, harboring as they do profound doubts about the feasibility of love in such a cockeyed world.
The long-thwarted couple in Mullingar live in side-by-side rural homes (thatched roof, etc.). Slow-burning ineffectual Anthony (Dan Donohue) is ambivalent about his relationship to the family farm, while tart Rosemary (Jessica Collins) is ambivalent about pretty much everything else. Past bad blood arising from a right-of-way land dispute and an elementary school altercation (daaarlin’, right?) get in the way of either of them realizing, let alone expressing, their true feelings. But in a Shanley comedy, like as not, things will work out for the best.
I wish I could say that this fetching piece is getting its due on the Geffen stage, but for my money neither of our protagonists, with their in-and-out brogues, make the most of the characters’ multiple layers. I never felt Rosemary’s profound blues, and Anthony seemed too vigorous and alert for the dutiful virgin he’s described as being.
No one is helped by director Randall Arney’s out-to-lunch blocking which has – and I kid you not – both Donohue and Collins playing 95% of their extended scenes together standing in one place. I daresay the idea is to portray lonely folk stuck in limbo, but their immobility – surrounded by objects to sit and lean on and tasks to perform – started to seem comical after a while. (Not at all comical were the unbelievably long set changes, of a kind you haven’t experienced since your old high school put on Fiddler.)
Still, great comic mileage is derived from the garrulous local color of Jarlath Conroy and Robin Pearson Rose as, respectively, Anthony’s pa and Rosemary’s ma. (Shanley writes great older-generation patter, as witness Moonstruck.) And I can’t not report a few scattered sniffles at a deathbed reconciliation – some even issuing from my direction – and the audience’s audible satisfaction when Anthony and Rosemary come to terms. Even in this imperfect staging Outside Mullingar is, and likely will remain for years to come, a crowd pleaser, begorra.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood. Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m. Sat. 3 and 8 p.m. Sun. 2 and 7 pm (dark Nov. 27; additional perf. on Nov. 23 at 8 p.m.); through Dec. 20. (310) 208-5454; www.geffenplayhouse.com. Running time 100 minutes, no intermission.