The love bug has stung John Patrick Shanley again. That’s obvious from his new play, “Outside Mullingar,” a modest and quirky little heart-tugger.
Like his Oscar-winning screenplay for “Moonstruck,” the play is a valentine to the wonder and weirdness of love. Instead of Cher shouting, “Snap out of it!,” Debra Messing calls the shots — and with an Irish brogue.
The Darby O’Gill accent is a must since Messing plays an Irish farmer, Rosemary Muldoon. Flame-haired and approaching 40, Rose has spent three decades secretly pining for Anthony Reilly (Brian F. O’Byrne), the boy — and now the man — raising cattle next-door.
Neither of them is getting any younger. And that goes double for their widowed parents: her ma, Aoife (Dearbhla Molloy), and his da, Tony (Peter Maloney).
Over seven scenes spanning five years, shifting set pieces take us inside the Reilly and Muldoon homes and beyond. Locations change, but Rose’s feelings for Anthony stay fixed — if unrequited.
As far as plot goes, that’s about it, and the story ultimately leads to predictable rom-com territory. To his credit, Shanley factors in some surprises to keep us intrigued, including an 11th-hour secret by Anthony, who’s been bruised by love before. It’s a doozy you will never see coming and adds to the show’s offbeat appeal.
Compared to Shanley’s Tony-and Pulitzer-winning drama, “Doubt,” which provided meaty food for thought about power, religion and sex, his sophomore Broadway venture is merely a pleasant snack. If you’re simply looking to be entertained — and don’t have a problem spending $70 for light fare — it won’t disappoint.
That’s certainly true of the fine-tuned cast, guided by Doug Hughes, who also directed “Doubt.”
Before “Will & Grace” and “Smash” made her a TV star, Messing cut her teeth Off-Broadway and she’s in her comfort zone on stage. With her great timing and expressive eyes, she makes Rosemary feisty, fiery and very amusing.
O’Byrne is more low-key, but equally appealing. In his Broadway turns in “Doubt,” “The Coast of Utopia” and “Frozen,” for which he won a Tony, he played to his serious and dark sides. Here, he shows a knack for feathery comedy. Together, O’Byrne and Messing have lovely chemistry.
As the dad, Maloney lends a vinegary splash as well as a touching moment in a final heart-to-heart with his son. The fine Molloy has the least to do, but Shanley gives her the line that’s key to what “Outside Mullingar” is all about.
“The middle is the best part,” Aoife says. “The middle of anything is the heart of the thing.”
That means middle age, which seems very late to discover love. But for folks like Rosemary and Anthony, it’s perfect timing.
Part of what makes romantic comedies so satisfying is that we know the mismatched, bickering pair will end up together. The fun is in watching them get there.
Except, that is, in John Patrick Shanley’s sluggish, sentimental “Outside Mullingar,” which isn’t much fun at all.
The potential lovebirds are appropriately inappropriate. Rosemary Muldoon (“Smash” star Debra Messing, in her Broadway debut) and Anthony Reilly (Brían F. O’Byrne, the original priest in Shanley’s “Doubt”) live on adjoining farms in the Irish countryside.
They’ve grown up near each other but barely speak because Anthony once pushed Rosemary down. Mind you, she was 13 and he was 6. Thirty years later, she still holds a grudge.
To make matters worse, Rosemary owns a tiny plot of land in front of the house Anthony shares with his widowed father, Tony (Peter Maloney). This complicates the men’s comings and goings, but Rosemary has no intention to sell.
You can see where this is headed, right? Fear not — the show gets there.
For inspiration, Shanley looked to his own Irish roots, which he’d never really explored before, and back to the romance of his screenplay for “Moonstruck.”
Yet “Outside Mullingar” can’t seem to decide if it’s a rom-com or a drama, and wastes too much time on exposition and badly paced, maudlin scenes.
The show spends more than an hour on meandering conversations in which the characters — who include Rosemary’s mother, Aoife (Dearbhla Molloy) — prattle on about the infamous right-of-way and the father and son’s prickly relationship.
When we finally do come to the courtship, the leads don’t quite gel.
The balding, unfussy-looking O’Byrne is perfect as the melancholy Anthony — a man who says “I don’t know how” when he’s asked why he can’t be happy. But he’s saddled with a last-minute reveal that’s so left-field, so inane that it almost ruins the character.
Messing gives a valiant try as the chain-smoking Rosemary — her Irish accent is good enough — and shines with the acerbic banter.
“That’s a two-man job,” Anthony says after she informs him she was out cutting her own turf.
“Or one woman,” Rosemary dryly answers.
But the bottom line is that Messing’s too gorgeous to have been cast as someone who’s stunned when told she’s beautiful. The role called for a more unassuming-looking character actress — say, a younger Edie Falco or Allison Janney.
Overall, it’s as if Shanley, director Doug Hughes and the Manhattan Theatre Club had been afraid to let this play be as small as it needs to be. Even the production overcompensates, with meticulous rotating sets by John Lee Beatty and elaborate water effects.
It’s never a good sign when you find yourself looking away from actors to watch falling rain.
The rain pours down in steady streams, shrouding in gloom the Irish countryside of “Outside Mullingar,” the new play by John Patrick Shanley that opened on Thursday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. Gloomy, too, is the talk of lost loves, deaths and other grim subjects dear to the hearts of the Irish, or at least those who populate Broadway stages. As is also regularly the case in plays set there, the reaper will pay a house call before the curtain has fallen.
But 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 Brian F. O’Byrne and Debra Messing. 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.
The wait proves to be a wholly diverting one in “Outside Mullingar,” which represents Mr. Shanley’s finest work since “Doubt,” the winner of both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. This isn’t to suggest that they are equally sturdy or significant plays. For all its satisfactions — which include supporting performances to savor from the wonderful Peter Maloney and Dearbhla Molloy — “Outside Mullingar” is a lighter, slighter play, a softhearted comedy freckled with dark reflections on the unsatisfactory nature of life and the thorns of love. But Mr. Shanley’s lyrical writing, and the flawless production, directed by Doug Hughes for Manhattan Theater Club, give such consistent pleasure that even though we know the equations that define romcoms will add up to the familiar sums, we are happy to watch as they do.
Mr. O’Byrne plays Anthony Reilly, who has been keeping up the family farm in the Irish Midlands for years. His father, Tony (Mr. Maloney), allows that Anthony has worked hard and well, but he mulishly 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 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 (Ms. Molloy), 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. Messing), 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 stage 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, 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.
Deploying a credible Irish accent, Ms. Messing imbues her character with a bossy irritability that gives Rosemary enough sharp edges to keep a lifelong bachelor from feeling wholly comfortable in her presence. Her long years of secret pining for the constitutionally sad, withdrawn Anthony — the dynamic between these two pays gentle tribute to Eugene O’Neill’s classic “A Moon for the Misbegotten” — does stretch credibility, and we must take on faith her mother’s assertion that she’s slightly “cracked.” But Ms. Messing’s fine performance convinces us that Rosemary has a strain of orneriness that has kept her, like Anthony, from joining in the tumultuous flow of life.
Mr. O’Byrne, one of the most reliably fine stage actors of his generation (he starred in Mr. Shanley’s “Doubt”), is perfectly cast as the permanently bemused Anthony, who hears voices in the fields but doesn’t always attend to what people are saying, even when they are shouting in his face. Although his character has closed off public access to his emotions, Mr. O’Byrne’s sensitive performance makes movingly clear that Anthony has always suffered from feeling too much, not too little. It’s what makes him shy away from Rosemary’s demands that he open himself up to life, instead of skulking around trying to avoid it.
That he will eventually succumb is never really 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.
Debra Messing and Brian F. O'Byrne are so, what's a more grown-up word for adorable? -- charming? irresistible? combustible? -- together that we wish this romantic comedy would go on for hours.
The problem is that "Outside Mullingar" is only a romantic comedy for the last altogether enchanting scene. For the rest of John Patrick Shanley's 95-minute oddity, we are thrust into some cartoon universe, where rural Irish folk speak wisdom in kooky locutions, fester on peculiar grudges and debate whether shy, middle-aged, hardworking Anthony Reilly (O'Byrne) loves the farm enough to inherit it from his cranky old dad.
Since this world premiere is by Shanley, of course, there are bursts of unpredictable, luscious writing and twists of humane individuality. And if the prolific playwright had written nothing but the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Doubt" -- and he has written much, much more -- that one stunning achievement would have earned him bushels of tolerance for creative meanderings.
But "Outside Mullingar" feels like a throwback to Shanley's early days of moonstruck Italian-American eccentrics, works that, despite their popularity, had the bogus feel of a tourist getting a crush on a foreign culture and shopping for novelties in a second language. Now the Bronx-born Irish-American has gone to the land -- the actual farm -- of his late father. Instead of finding his own voice in those roots, he creates dark, off-center country characters who force unfortunate comparisons with many by today's celebrated Irish playwrights.
Messing, in a long red braid and conscientious Irish accent, is delightful as Rosemary, the simultaneously hard and needy aging neighbor from the adjoining farm. The actress, a New York University theater graduate before TV stole her, has a kind of feisty Annie Oakley facade and an unusually blunt honesty. O'Byrne, the original priest in "Doubt," makes us care deeply for this increasingly strange, touching, crushing man, who squeezes out lyrical sentences with the agony of someone trying to bolt or fly away.
Rosemary's mother and his father (the excellent Dearbhla Molloy and Peter Maloney, respectively) are assigned more familiar Irish caricatures, storytellers who ramble about death and betrayal with a comic lilt. The premiere, Manhattan Theatre Club's 10th Shanley production, has been lovingly conceived by director Doug Hughes and the rest of the creative team of "Doubt." Too bad they all can't start from that wondrous last scene and go from there.
The last John Patrick Shanley play to arrive on Broadway was a probing, searing look at faith and uncertainty. Focusing on a popular priest and the nun who questions his actions and intentions, Doubt — the first entry in Shanley's "Church and State" trilogy — earned both the Tony Award for best play and a Pulitzer Prize in 2005.
Shanley's less powerful follow-up efforts, Defiance and Storefront Church, ran off-Broadway to less enthusiastic reviews. So it shouldn't be entirely surprising that the Manhattan Theatre Club production that marks his return to the Main Stem is a relatively unchallenging romantic comedy.
Granted, Shanley has mined similar territory winningly in the past, most famously with his Oscar-winning screenplay for 1987's Moonstruck. And Outside Mullingar (*** out of four stars), which opened Thursday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, has its own modest, tender ambitions and quirky charms.
Set in the Midlands of Ireland, where Shanley's father was born, the new play involves a man and woman whose family farms sit right next to each other. When we meet them, Anthony and Rosemary are unmarried and in early middle age, and each has one surviving parent, both worried about what will become of their unsettled offspring.
Had Shanley made Anthony and Rosemary, say, career-obsessed urbanites still living with their folks in the same apartment building, the story would seem ridiculously contrived. But by placing them in a rural setting where dating options are considerably more limited — not just by a less-dense population, but by cultural and religious mores (it is mentioned more than once that the two see each other in church) — he makes their plight more credible and, despite some hokum, intriguing.
It's a huge plus that Shanley and director Doug Hughes (also his collaborator for Doubt and Defiance) have the immensely talented Brian F. O'Byrne and Debra Messing, in her Broadway debut, playing their will-be couple. O'Byrne's Anthony is an awkward loner for whom any degree of social interaction is a hurdle, but he conveys a sort of blunt integrity and a disarming sweetness that make it plausible a feisty beauty like Rosemary would fall for him.
Rosemary has her own neurotic tics, visible despite the brittle exterior she has developed to ward off various wooers. In Messing's funny, moving performance, we see how Anthony breaks through that armor — even though it's Rosemary who, in an intermittently awkward but endearing climax, determines to force Anthony out of his shell.
Dearbhla Molloy and Peter Maloney lend delightful support as, respectively, Rosemary's dry-witted mother and Anthony's lovably cranky da. Early on, the old man observes to his recently widowed neighbor, "When the husband goes, the wife follows. ...You'll be dead in a year."
Outside Mullingar's account of human connection is generally less provocative, and a lot more comforting. But if Shanley is raising less-complicated questions this time, there are flecks of wisdom in his sweetly diverting study.
It may not be as dramatic as “Doubt” or as funny as “Moonstruck,” but John Patrick Shanley has not written a more beautiful or loving play than “Outside Mullingar.” The rural dialect spoken on the farms and villages of Ireland translates into prickly poetry under Doug Hughes’ helming of this bittersweet family drama about the unresolved issues between cantankerous parents and their obstinate offspring. Playing neighbors whose families are caught up in a bizarre feud over a contested strip of land that separates their two farms, Debra Messing and Brian F. O’Byrne are a match made in heaven.
The most colorful language in this chatty play is uttered by Tony Reilly, a crabby old coot played to a fare-thee-well by Peter Maloney, a stage lifer who has earned this meaty role. Although he’s pretty much relinquished all the farm chores to his son, Anthony (O’Byrne), this domestic tyrant still rules the roost from his battered armchair in the kitchen. (If the place weren’t such a housekeeping disaster, you could move right in to John Lee Beatty’s meticulous replication of a farmhouse kitchen.)
Tony is none too pleased to learn that Anthony has invited their next-door neighbors, Aoife Muldoon (Dearbhla Molloy) and her daughter Rosemary (Messing), to stop in for a visit. Having just buried her husband that morning, Aoife could use some cheering up. But the grieving widow isn’t getting any sympathy from Tony. “When the husband goes, the wife follows,” he warns her. “You’ll be dead in a year.”
Aoife may have one foot in the grave, but in Molloy’s tough-as-boots perf, her native wit and tart tongue have kept her in fighting shape. The old lady is not so feeble, after all, once she and Tony resume their ongoing, bitterly funny battle over a tiny patch of land that plays a big role in their history. But in a smart about-face, the elders gang up on Anthony, blaming him and his generation for everything from the sorry state of the Irish economy to the national soccer team’s poor showing in the Olympic Games.
Although all this negativity has worn him down, what really stings Anthony is his father’s threat to bequeath the family farm to a relative who lives in America.
“You don’t love it” is Tony’s devastating assessment of his son’s feelings about farming. “You don’t have joy.” To which cold sentiments Anthony responds: “Some of us don’t have joy. But we do what we must.”
That exchange, among many like it, smartly captures the harsh beauty of Shanley’s dramatic voice. Born into the rigors of farm life, his farmers speak a blunt, earthy idiom. But being Irish, they can’t help themselves from putting a lyrical spin on their dark thoughts and bleak language.
As much hurt by his father’s rejection as angered by the loss of his birthright, Anthony stumbles out of the house and into the rain. Here he finds Aoife’s daughter, Rosemary, a fiercely independent free spirit in Debra Messing’s amazing perf. Hot-tempered and “stubborn to the point of madness,” according to her secretly proud mother, this redheaded fury is pacing the ground, smoking her dead father’s pipe and raring for a good fight when Anthony steps into firing range.
The sparks between these two would keep a bonfire blazing through the night. But they’re Irish and stubborn to the core, so for all their sexually fraught sparring (“Your eyes have pagan things in them sometimes,” Rosemary tells Anthony), it still takes them another year and one last breathtaking scene before they find each other.
It’s a well-spent year, dramatically speaking, because Shanley makes use of it to bring father and son together in a reconciliation scene so tenderly written and beautifully played that it would melt a stone.