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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
As you can see from the links below, we've followed McPherson's career since he first made his mark at age twenty. He's now in his mid-thirties and his recent plays, while still quiet and in the story-telling mode, have had more dressed up presentations in which, instead of one charcter holding the stage, three or four actors interact. Thus unlike The Faith Healer, with its four separate but interconnected monologues, Shining City has five scenes, each a duet between Ian (Brian F. O'Byrne), an ex-priest now working in Dublin as a therapist, and one of the play's three other characters.
Typical of writers like Synge, McPherson has a penchant for ghosts. In St. Nicholase a has-been theater critic is spooked by his wrongdoings. His last Broadway play, The Weir, used a village pub as a setup for swapped ghost stories.
Ghosts are also a handy means for exploring the psyches of males trapped in guilt and insecurity driven emotional solitary confinement. In Shining City, MaPherson employs the therapeutic setting to tell the parallel stories of two such men and, skilled storyteller that he is, he has managed to take a rational as well as a more metaphysical approach to the ghosts that haunt John and Ian.
The play opens with Ian preparing for the arrival of his first patient. That patient, John (Oliver Platt), recently lost his wife in a car crash. Now, this practical businessman who's heretofore dealt with life's little and big blows with typical male restraint is completely discombobulated by visions of his dead wife. The dead wife who goes bump in the night has spooked him into moving out of his house and seek counseling. It's a bit hard to believe that a man so new to therapy could so quickly unloosen his feelings and find use for the box of tissues Ian has tactfully put on the coffee table. But then, he IS desperate, and we only have ninety minutes for not only John but Ian to bring forth and try to get rid of their demons.
It's fairly obvious from that first scene (there are five scenes altogether, with two months elapsing between each) that John's spectral visions stem from a less than perfect marriage and that his revelations will stir up complementary unresolved insecurities about religious faith, sexual identity and commitment in Ian. Oliver Pratt, a well-known stage and TV character actor is an intense and often droll John and Brian F. O'Byrne, who was still a working priest in his most recent Tony-award nominated role in Doubt, is well cast as the self-defrocked priest. The strong chemistry between the actors helps us to understand the differences as well as the similarities that have stranded each man at a troublesome crossroad in his life.
The therapist's problems turn out to be more complicated than his patient's. This is borne out by a scene between O'Byrne and Neassa (Martha Plimpton), the woman who has been his lover and borne his child -- and also via a brief encounter with a young man (Peter Scanavino) that mirrors his patient's marital misadventures. The O'Byrne/Plimpton encounter is harrowing, not because of any physical violence, but in its depiction of a man who, unable to make peace with himself, is ready to break as finally with a woman he loves as he did with his faith.
Neasa bears considerable kinship to Grace in The Faith Healer but McPherson has written her a less plummy role; and, while Plimpton probably does the Irish accent better than Cherry Jones as Grace, she's not as riveting to watch. In any case, the heart and soul of Shining City is in the building relationship between the two mixed-up men.
Director Robert Falls moves the story forward with understated grace, though the bits of business about the difficulties of buzzing visitors into Santo Loquasto's handsome and almost too spacious Dublin walk up are a bit overdone. As in another Irish play currently on the Great White Way, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, there's a stunning surprise ending which you won't hear more about from me. However, don't expect that play's kind of bloody excitement from Shining City. Unlike Mr. McDonagh's gun-wielding loose cannons, Mr. McPherson's characters explode strictly with words -- without a drop of spilled blood.
Links to Other Reviews of Plays by Conor Mc Pherson
Rum and Vodka
This Lime Tree Bower
Links to Other Irish Plays Currently on Broadway
The Faith Healer
The Lieutenant of Inishmore