Saturday, January 12, 2008

A second chance for Conor McPherson

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Thursday night I went to see the play Shining City, by Conor McPherson, at Third Rail Rep. This company won my approval with their fabulous production of Martin McDonagh's The Lonesome West in June 2006 and they are shrewdly advertising Shining City as "Third Rail returns to Ireland!"

The two plays, though, couldn't be more different...and that did give me pause. McDonagh is one of my favorite contemporary playwrights, while McPherson's The Weir sits at the top of my Most Boring Plays Ever Seen list. And though McPherson has won awards and critical acclaim, others criticize him for relying too much on monologues and narrated stories, not on drama. Still, I felt like I should give him another shot before writing him off completely (I was only about 12 when I saw The Weir).

Shining City is about Ian, an ex-priest turned therapist, and John, one of his first clients, who is distraught after seeing his dead wife's ghost in their old house. Throughout the evening, the parallels between the two men become clear--in their confusion and isolation and inability to connect with others. Already, this is a more dramatic premise than the "swapping ghost stories" premise of The Weir.

I'm not sure if Shining City is the most appropriate title for this story, but I liked seeing something that took place in contemporary middle-class Dublin, since most Irish plays I know are set in rural villages. The story's elements of superstition, faith, and religion seem very typically "Irish" to me, but its concerns about the loneliness of urban life can apply to any industrialized country--it's more universal.

McPherson still loves monologues, but at least they are justified here because John is talking to his therapist. And John's monologue is really well-written: it's a funny account of his abortive attempts to cheat on his wife, until, suddenly, it's not funny anymore. Even better, McPherson has written two scenes with actual dramatic conflict in them: one where Ian tries to break up with his girlfriend, Neasa; and another where Ian brings a male hustler back to his office. An actual dialogue where two characters are interacting, their needs and motives shifting, for an extended period of time? Wow!

So I'm no longer so stridently anti-Conor McPherson, having come to appreciate his ability to write both monologues and dialogues. But I still think Shining City is an imperfect play that left me with too many unanswered questions about the characters and the playwright's ultimate point. SPOILERS ahead:
  • Are we supposed to think that Ian is a good therapist, or not? By the end of the play, John certainly seems to have made a full recovery. But during the therapy sessions, Ian never really does much of anything--just listens as John talks. Is this a commentary on the role of the therapist--saying that all we really need is someone to listen to us, and we'll be healed? The dramaturg's note includes an Oscar Wilde quote, "It is the confession, not the priest, that gives absolution."
  • Why does Ian end up doing what he does? The scenes we get of his personal life involve him breaking up with his girlfriend and questioning his sexual identity by hiring a male prostitute. This latter encounter is awkward but, we are led to believe, ultimately successful. Yet in the next scene, Ian announces that he is going back to Neasa, planning to marry her and move to Limerick. How did he come to this conclusion?
  • Furthermore, what drew Ian and Neasa together in the first place? He's a quiet, tweedy ex-priest; she's a barmaid who wears miniskirts and studded belts. They don't seem to have a lot in common.
  • And just why does every priest in a contemporary play have to be confused about his sexual orientation? My friend Lexi and I are getting really sick of this, after seeing Shining City, Doubt, 100 Saints You Should Know...
  • The ghost: real, or metaphoric? And are either of these choices meaningful? (see Michael Feingold's review for more on this). And if Shining City really is just a ghost story, then shouldn't the ghost in the Third Rail production be a lot scarier--the lighting more shadowy and atmospheric when she appears? I heard that on Broadway the audience jumped out of their skin. No one did on Thursday night.
Otherwise, Third Rail's production was good, though I could have done without the extra-long transitions between scenes that broke up the play too much. Why, instead of having perhaps seven minutes (combined) of silent scenes of Ian moving boxes, drinking tea, and reading books, McPherson could have written a seven-minute scene that gave us more insight into Ian's character and the decisions he makes.

Ian must be a very difficult acting assignment because he has 2 scenes where he just sits and listens to John, 2 scenes of intense dramatic conflict, and one scene that sums it all up. Hard to make a cohesive character out of that, and I think I needed to see more subtext from actor Michael O'Connell--which would have answered some of my questions about what attracts him to Neasa, etc. Interestingly, this is the second time O'Connell is playing an Irish priest for Third Rail--he was a memorable Father Welsh-Walsh-Welsh in The Lonesome West (maybe the only priest in a contemporary play who doesn't question his sexual orientation!).

John is also a hard role because he has to be keyed-up and distraught as soon as he steps onstage, as well as hold the audience's attention for a 20-minute monologue. Bruce Burkhartsmeier very much succeeded, though. Val Landrum (Neasa) and Chris Harder (Laurence, the hustler) also created memorable characters in their one scene apiece.

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