Some spirits are harder to exorcise than others, but they make for compelling theater.
In "Shining City," Conor McPherson's remarkable play, the ghosts of guilt and indecision haunt the drama's two main characters: a nebbishy Dublin salesman whose wife has died in a taxi accident and the man's therapist, an ex-priest, tortured by a failed relationship and his own uncertain sexuality.
McPherson, an Irish playwright best known here for "The Weir," has written a small, carefully calibrated tale that requires delicate handling. Fortunately, it has been given a scrupulous production by Manhattan Theatre Club; it opened Tuesday at Broadway's Biltmore Theatre.
Directed with care by Robert Falls, the play unfolds slowly but ends with quite a shiver. Three of its five scenes take the form of a patient-doctor exercise in which John, played by a quivering Oliver Platt, pours out his feelings to Ian, the troubled analyst (a beautiful, nuanced performance by Brian F. O'Byrne).
John is consumed by his wife's death. In fact, he says he has seen her ghost. What comes out in his rambling sessions with Ian is the story of a deteriorating marriage, and John's flirtatious adventures with another woman - as well as a visit to a house of prostitution.
Platt perfectly captures a man in shambles, the unraveling of a person done in by unexpected loss. His long, hesitant speeches are almost monologues, the baring, in bits and pieces, of his soul.
And what John reveals is a profound if predictable disappointment, a growing realization that most lives are ordinary and as he says, "A bit boring even, otherwise it's probably not real."
The tightly wound Ian is sympathetic but professionally resewed in his dealings with the businessman. Yet his deliberate opaqueness drops in the play's two other scenes when his own, considerable problems are revealed.
In one, Ian has a heated argument with his belligerent, lower-class girlfriend, played by a fiercely combative Martha Plimpton. She's the mother of his little girl, and despite the child, he is seeking to find a way out of their combustible partnership.
In the other, he brings a hustler (Peter Scanavino) back to his office, a sympathetic young man who seems much more together that anyone else in the play. It's the only time in "Shining City" when two people actually connect.
But then, confession, it seems, is therapeutic, no matter what the consequences. And both John and Ian are in the process of finding their way out of the past, a past that refuses to leave. in the end, they forge an odd, but totally appropriate bond.
McPherson's dialogue is deceptive, subtle yet often gently humorous and able to find the poetic in everyday happenings.
In "The Weir," seen on Broadway in 1999, the playwright also examined the supernatural – ghostly remembrances set in a rural Ireland where time seemed to have stopped long ago. In "Shining City," the naturalborn storyteller is dealing with a more urban, modern world. But the sense of mysterious unease is just as palpable and disturbing.
From Santo Loquasto's set for "Shining City," an office in an old, presumably Victorian building in Dublin, with a grand, high window and numerous doors framed in mahogany, you expect a comparably imposing play.
Expectations for Conor McPherson's drama are similarly raised by its being in the grandest of Manhattan Theater Club's three venues, the splendidly restored Biltmore.
When the play was over, I wondered if I might have expected less if MTC had done it in its most intimate theater, Stage Two, in the basement of City Center on W. 55th St.
For McPherson has, in effect, written two plays. One is about Ian, a man haunted by the ghost of his wife, who recently died in a car accident. For a play about spirits, the somber set seems appropriate.
Ultimately, though, the play is about two men starting new lives. Ian is trying to find himself after his wife's unexpected death. John, the therapist he visits to help him, is a priest who has left the priesthood. He has also abandoned the girlfriend with whom he has had a child (as well as the child) to do some sexual experimentation.
For this latter play, the unpretentious basement might have been more suitable, especially since two middleaged men puzzling over their lives is more compelling than flirtation with the supernatural.
With his heavy jowls and sweetly bleary expression, Oliver Platt is both funny and heartbreaking as Ian. He plods around in a way that suggests he wasn't the liveliest of men even before tragedy struck.
By play's end, there's hope for him, but we sense that for Ian, life will always be daunting. it's a beautiful portrayal.
There is a similar comedy in Brian F. O'Byrne's attempts to be authoritative as a therapist when we see how confused his private life is.
Especially in his encounter with a male trick, O'Byrne has a vulnerability we haven't seen before.
Peter Scanavino is droll as the unappealing trick, and Martha Plimpton is strong as the abandoned woman.
Despite the wonderful cast and Robert Falls' sensitive direction, the two plays never quite jell.
In the basement of the MTC, a succession of well-acted scenes might have been more satisfying.
The Irish playwright Conor McPherson, whose "Shining City" opened at the Biltmore Theatre last night, is obsessed with ghosts. His first play to reach Broadway, "The Weir," was in effect a ghost story, and he's now following it with another spectral haunting.
It boasts a great cast led by a superb Brian F. O'Byrne - straight from his triumph last season in "Doubt" - and, making his Broadway debut, the wonderful Oliver Platt, to whom acting seems as natural as breathing.
McPherson is first and last a storyteller. He'd be a natural for radio, for his narrative method is to grab the audience by its ears and say, "Listen to this weird story. You don't have to believe it, but just suppose ..." And sometimes we do just that.
I recall his first creepy tale in New York, a monologue called "St. Nicholas," where a drama critic tells of his deepening involvement with vampires. Almost true to life, that one.
In "Shining City," we're offered snippets of stories that never quite hang together and never quite make sense. They're presumably meant to illuminate characters which, unfolding before us, provide a meaningful dramatic experience. They don't.
But they do talk, and quite interestingly, as we try to pick up the crumbs that might give us a better idea of what's really going on.
The play is set in a somewhat down-at-heel, sparsely furnished apartment in Dublin. Ian (O'Byrne), a seemingly diffident man in early middle age, is pottering around until his doorbell announces his visitor.
Enter John (Platt). After strained small talk, it becomes clear that Ian is some kind of lay therapist, and John a client referred to him.
John tells a strange tale. He can't sleep. His wife has recently been killed in a car crash, and -to cut a tall story down to size - he has just seen her mangled ghost. And he needs help that is something more than medical.
The intermissionless play is in five scenes, separated roughly two months apart, but although time is passing, there's no clear sense of when or how much is going on.
We do find out that Ian is a lapsed priest with a girlfriend, Neasa (Martha Plimpton), who has a baby of whom Ian is almost certainly the father.
Ian wants to break up with Neasa, and sends her back to his brother, where they were all staying. Two months later, feeling lonely, he nervously goes out to the park to pick up a sweet but low-rent rent boy (Peter Scanavino).
During their therapy sessions, John -who has had trouble with women and feels guilty about his wife's death -improves, until by the end he is in great shape. But although Ian has decided to pick up and settle with Neasa and child in Limerick, his troubles aren't over. Not yet.
So. The playwright's question, I presume, is, Do ghosts exist? And if they do, are they not evidence of some alternative plane of existence? Otherwise, it's just an unconvincing horror story.
But the acting - including a fierce but defeated Plimpton and a convincingly scuzzy but world-wise Scanavino - beautifully directed by Robert Falls, is absolutely lovely.
As to what it all meant - of that, I have no idea.
There are never more than two people together at a time in "Shining City," the quiet, haunting and absolutely glorious new play by Conor McPherson that opened last night at the Biltmore Theater. Yet the stage feels as crowded and as solitary as a big-city subway at rush hour — dense with urban lives rubbing against one another while never making contact. To exist is to be alone in Mr. McPherson's Dublin, but it is also to be painfully aware of the countless other lives that touch upon yours. Touching upon, of course, is not the same as actually touching.
Given such a worldview, it seems natural that Mr. McPherson, the author of quintessentially Irish exercises in storytelling like "The Weir" and "This Lime Tree Bower," should have hitherto favored the monologue as his form of choice. With "Shining City," which is set in the first office of an untried therapist played by Brian F. O'Byrne, Mr. McPherson forces his characters out of the safe houses of their soliloquies and makes them talk to one another. It is hardly surprising that many of their sentences end with the wan, hopeful words, "You know?"
The anguish and inadequacy with which these people approach the basic art of conversation give "Shining City" an almost unbearable air not only of poignancy but also of familiarity. At some point watching it brings to mind one of those moments when you realize that the awkward, raw-looking, unhappy person you've just glimpsed in the shop window across the street is nobody but yourself.
I was blown away by "Shining City" when I first saw it at the Royal Court Theater in London in a production directed by Mr. McPherson. But I was uneasy about its being staged with an American director and cast. Ruin (i.e., the current Broadway production of "Festen," another West End transplant) hath taught me thus to ruminate. The fragmented, pause-pocked dialogue that Mr. McPherson uses here is nearly as difficult to nail as that of Harold Pinter. It takes a highly skilled and committed cast to convey self-consciousness un-self-consciously. And the play, while clear, is subtle, and subtlety is seldom tolerated on Broadway unless it's being pitched by a glamorous star.
Fortunately, the director of this Manhattan Theater Club production, Robert Falls, reaffirms the affinity he demonstrated for the loneliness of intimate strangers in first-rate Broadway revivals of "Death of a Salesman" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night." And he has gracefully made the adjustment to the softer but penetrating expressiveness of "Shining City" while staying close to Mr. McPherson's original staging. As for the four cast members — Mr. O'Byrne, Oliver Platt (of "The West Wing" and "Huff" on television), Martha Plimpton and Peter Scanavino — they wear their characters' discomfort like a second, scarred set of skins.
Like much of Mr. McPherson's work, "Shining City" is a ghost story, literally as well as otherwise. At its heart is a tale told by a widower, John (Mr. Platt), a middle-aged businessman who turns out to be the first patient of Ian (Mr. O'Byrne), who has recently left the priesthood and set up practice in downtown Dublin. John's most immediate problem — the one he does and does not want to talk about — is that he keeps seeing his wife, Mari, who died not long ago in a car crash. The sight of her has so terrified him that he has abandoned the house they shared and taken up residence in a bed and breakfast.
In these visions, he says, "her mouth is open like she was trying to. ..." The sentence trails off. What was Mari trying to say? Even when she was alive, communication between her and her husband was close to nonexistent, although he now wonders if the mere fact of her living presence wasn't as close to human connection as life allows.
John's meetings with his dead wife aren't all that different from the other encounters described and enacted in "Shining City." In Ian's conversations with the play's two other characters — his girlfriend, Neasa (Ms. Plimpton), and Laurence (Mr. Scanavino), a scruffy young father who is hard up for cash — and in his subsequent sessions with John, patterns of unheard voices, of isolation and displacement, keep repeating themselves.
For starters, none of these people are living in places they think of as their proper homes. Ian has taken to sleeping in his new office (rendered by Santo Loquasto with an indomitable shabbiness that suggests this room has seen and discarded many previous tenants). Neasa, who has a baby by Ian, is staying in the house of Ian's brother, where no one speaks to her. Poor, derelict Laurence doesn't even have a place to sleep. And as John describes his existence before Mari's death, much of it seems to have been spent on the road. "You go searching," says John, who immediately qualifies: "not searching, I wasn't going anywhere searching for anything, but I think I was always slightly waiting, you know?"
The same questing but passive spirit leads each of the characters into sexual encounters that are always unwise and unfulfilling, even when they are physically consummated. Neasa admits to Ian that she cheated on him once only because "I didn't have anyone even that I could just have a normal talk to." John remembers melting for a woman he met at a party because she seemed genuinely interested when he talked about his sinus problems. John's disastrous trip to a brothel ends with his being beaten up by a thug and then feeling grateful just because the same man kept telling him, "You'll be all right."
That story is part of what is effectively a sustained monologue, and Mr. Platt, mixing self-deprecating wryness with threadbare sorrow, rivets your attention as he tells it. Working with a part that relies as much on silence as Mr. Platt's does on talk, Mr. O'Byrne adds another beautifully shaded portrait to his gallery of wounded men (including the priest in John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" and the child-killer in Bryony Lavery's "Frozen"). And Ms. Plimpton and Mr. Scanavino invest their relatively brief time onstage with the unforgettable ache of their characters' neediness.
In terms of construction, "Shining City" is as close to perfection as contemporary playwriting gets. As elliptical as the conversation is, there's not a word or pause that doesn't feed the work's theme or its interconnected, disconnected stories. The same is true of even small physical details, like the malfunctioning downstairs buzzer in Ian's office building, and what turns out to be the most shocking ending on Broadway. And, no, I won't say anything more about it except that Mr. McPherson has found an inspired alternative to those inadequate tools of communication called words.
Concluding the unofficial Irish portion of Broadway's spring season, we have "Shining City," a meandering footnote of a Conor McPherson drama that the Manhattan Theatre Club opened last night at the Biltmore Theatre.
You remember McPherson. He began gently activating the radar screen in the late '90s, not long after his flashier young compatriot, Martin McDonagh, started hacking his way into theater history with such bloody Gaelic-Gothic satires as "Beauty Queen of Leenane" (a tradition that is continuing as we speak with the hit splatter-tragicomedy "Lieutenant of Inishmore").
McPherson is more of a storyteller, best known here for the ghost tales in "The Weir" and a terrific solo called "St.Nicholas" about a disillusioned drama critic who gets caught up with vampires.
In "Shining City," at least one character - a widower played by the bizarrely cast Oliver Platt - is literally haunted. Unfortunately, this is not the same as being haunting. The play, told in five duets over 90 minutes, recounts clumsy attempts at intimacy by lonely but not especially interesting people who punctuate their limited social exchanges with lots of "You know ..." and "I mean ..." Comparisons with "Faith Healer," the four exquisite monologues by the Irish master Brian Friel that opened on Broadway last week, are obvious but unkind.
If the pivotal character were played by anyone less fascinating than Brian F. O'Byrne, it would be hard to justify the effort in Robert Falls' conscientious production. O'Byrne, who made a pedophiliac murderer almost appealing in "Frozen," and made us hate to doubt the priest in "Doubt," is compulsively watchable as the connecting link here.
He plays Ian, a Dublin therapist on his own psychological and spiritual journey - a connect-the-dots character we learn to understand through his inarticulate interaction with others. Alas, by the time we finally connect with his yearningfor something beyond reality, it's time to be "moving on," as Ian himself puts it.
Three of the scenes involve Platt as a patient convinced he sees the ghost of his wife, who died in an accident during a time, as he too frequently explains, when they "weren't communicating." The actor, who only occasionally even attempts an Irish accent, hits too many of the same fleshy sad-clown notes he plays with such endearing gusto in the Showtime series "Huff."
Platt, theater-trained but better known for film and TV, compels us to pay attention to his unpredictable layers of flop-sweat and dignity. Instead of a hotshot lawyer who unravels, he plays a man who begins in shambles and ravels into a successful businessman. We find ourselves wanting to know more about him, even when the playwright pushes us away.
Martha Plimpton, in her one scene, is underutilized but effective as a workingclass woman who helps rescue Ian and then is dropped by him. Peter Scanavino makes the most out of his moment as a grimy, scary trick Ian picks up and brings home.
Ian's office, designed by Santo Loquasto, has a rough yet inviting feel of the conversion of an old church. The sky is lit (by Christopher Akerlind) with what must be intentional artificiality, though we know not why. Action, such as it is, gets separated by slow-dance country songs, which must mean something to someone. We also can't figure out the meaning of the title. We do enjoy watching O'Byrne gracefully change his shirts (costumes by Kaye Voyce) and rearrange the office between scenes. Too bad the room evolves more theatrically than the characters.