Friday, October 7, 2016

Review: "Outside Mullingar", TheatreWorks

The rain pours down in steady streams, shrouding in gloom the Irish countryside of “Outside Mullingar,” a recent play by John Patrick Shanley that opened on October 5, 2016 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

The play originally premiered at Broadway's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on January 23, 2014 and closed on March 16, 2014. This was my first time seeing the play on Friday, October 7th at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

Gloomy, too, is the talk of lost loves, deaths and other grim subjects dear to the hearts of the Irish. As is also regularly the case in plays set there, the reaper will pay a house call before the curtain has fallen.

You needn’t be a cockeyed optimist to deduce that the skies will ultimately clear for the play’s moody, broody central characters, two middle-aged farmers winningly played by Mr. Rod Brogan and Ms. Jessica Wortham. As soon as we hear of the prickly antipathy between these two life-battered souls, we can settle back in our chairs comfortably and await a satisfying final clinch. A woman’s loudly professed aversion for a man — or a man’s for a woman — is the surest sign that we are in the realm of romantic comedy, which demands that plenty of high hurdles be placed in the path of true love.

Rod Brogan plays Anthony Reilly, who has been keeping up the family farm in the Irish Midlands for years. His father, Tony (played by Mr. Steve Brady), allows that Anthony has worked hard and well, but he unflinchingly maintains that his son will never be a true man of the earth. “You don’t stand on the land and draw strength from it,” he says, drawing a look of wounded surprise from his dutiful son. And because, at 42, Anthony has never married, and Tony wants to see the farm remain in the family, he goes on to suggest blithely that he might just pass the farm to Anthony’s American cousin (Adam) when he dies.

Matters of inheritance are on Tony’s mind because they have just returned from the funeral of Christopher Muldoon, the proprietor of the neighboring farm. His widow, Aoife (Mrs. Lucina Hitchcock Cone), has honored them with a visit, and as Anthony cleans the kitchen and makes tea, the elders trade prognostications about their impending ends. “You’ll be dead within a year,” Tony stoutly tells Aoife, who philosophically agrees. But he later adds a gentlemanly qualification: “Me? I’ll be dead within two months.”

Tony’s not really the hardhearted fellow these bitter salvos might suggest. In fact, as played with idiomatic humor and charm by Mr. Maloney, he’s frisky, funny company as he muses with relish on the dark future. Tony doesn’t plan to leave his only son high and dry, incidentally, but to sell the farm to the cousin and hand over the proceeds to his son.

There’s a hitch, though: When feeling pinched, he sold a certain strip of land to Muldoon, a parcel that runs right through the access route to the Reilly farm, and would make a sale less probable. What even Tony doesn’t know is that this land belongs not to the widow but to her daughter, Rosemary (Ms. Jessica Wortham), who has been smoking on the porch while Tony and Aoife chatter in the kitchen.

Rosemary has been nursing an epic grudge against Anthony since the 13-year-old boy knocked down her wee 6-year-old self. (Resentments die hard among the Irish.) And yet, when she learns of Tony’s plan to hand down the farm to Anthony’s cousin, her righteous instincts are stirred, our first clue that perhaps underneath her long-nursed resentment resides a flickering flame of unrequited love.

Mr. Shanley must resort to some exotic stratagems to keep Rosemary and Anthony from coming to an understanding. True, Anthony’s heart has been shut down since he was rejected in his distant youth by his first love (Fiona), but the reason for this rejection, when revealed, is fairly preposterous, albeit amusingly tinged with Irish whimsy. The long scenes in which Rosemary and Anthony trade mordant reflections on their unhappy lives sometimes seem to be going in circles. And yet Mr. O’Byrne and Ms. Messing bring these somewhat sentimentally conceived characters to convincing life, and their performances have enough natural oil and water in them to make their pairing seem at least theoretically implausible.

An eventual happy ending is never in doubt, despite the testy repartee and vows of unregenerate unhappiness. “People don’t appeal to me that much,” Anthony matter-of-factly remarks at one point, to which Rosemary quickly retorts: “That’s normal. Who likes people? Nobody.” If love can’t find a way with these two, a shared misanthropy will do the trick just as nicely.