Outside Mullingar Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Credit: Joan Marcus

John Patrick Shanley’s latest, Outside Mullingar, is a tight, four-character, one-act that just opened at the manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman.

Set in the Irish Midlands, the two American actors, Debra Messing and Peter Maloney, struggle with the dialect, while the two Irish-born actors, Dearbhla Molloy and Brian F. O’Byrne, cruise.

The four characters are anchored to the land near Mullingar, on adjoining cattle and sheep farms that the two younger characters are destined to inherit.  The conflict blooms as Rosemary (Debra Messing) chases Anthony (Brian F. O’Byrne) with conviction and near aggression. The hero of our piece is undone both by her pursuit and by his exaggerated shyness.

Messing plays Rosemary as an old soul who knows how things are meant to be.  She scolds Anthony’s father, Tony, for threatening to disinherit his son, a move that would upend her plan.

“When a person knows what will be—and I have always known—the like of you should stand aside.”  She waits for Anthony to see the inevitability of their match.

Theater purists tend to sneer at what seems a Broadway necessity casting a television or film celebrity in serious work in order to draw an audience. While Messing’s visibility in both television and cinema may be part of that reality, she holds her own, and then some, against the more seasoned stage veterans here.

Peter Maloney, playing Tony, is a familiar presence.  If you go to the theater in New York, you have seen him—sometimes the comfortable uncle or the blustery rogue or, as in this case, a disappointed father who comes quickly to serenity as he faces death.  You feel someone cut out the middle of Tony’s part.

Dearbhla Molloy (Aoife Muldoon) plays the resigned matriarch in widow’s weeds. As the play opens, she has buried her husband and is herself in failing health. In a dark dialogue, she and Tony try to outdo one another with who’s to die sooner. I hear my own relatives in this grim game.  More importantly, Shanley clearly remembers his.

Irish actor Brian F. O’Byrne comes equipped with more than the brogue; he is the character who most inhabits the stage.  No matter who is talking, you watch him.  His silences are strong.  He stays in some of the play’s most dramatic moments longer than is comfortable.  He embraces his dying father and holds him longer than one expects.  When he finally embraces Rosemary, he holds that moment just beyond one’s expectation.  It’s powerful.

Late in the action, Shanley slips in a very odd admission from Tony, to explain his reticence to bond with Rosemary.  It’s comic, and charming in its way, but it comes out of nowhere and feels added on.  Other than that choice, the script is well paced and entertaining, peppered with Gaelic expressions that tickle the audience.

“I’m saying that you come up from some other people. It’s as plain as Tuesday.” 

“There’s no argument to be made. It’s like wool and white paper.”

“He looks like a farmer. . . . He has hands like feet.”

Having won all the awards the theater and the wide world offer a playwright, including the Pulitzer for Doubt: A Parable, Shanley’s gift for lightly sprinkling import on ordinary situations is intact.  You may find Rosemary overbearing, but you believe her.  You may find yourself impatient with Anthony, but you still hope he’ll see sense.  Outside Mullingar is a visit with people you are not likely to meet in Manhattan, but you leave the theater convinced they are trudging through life today somewhere in the Irish countryside.

One final note: I find it unnerving when audiences think it appropriate to applaud the set.  That said, I must applaud scenic designer John Lee Beatty for another conquest, making wonderful decisions with rain and height.

Outside Mullingar, by John Patrick Shanley

WITH: Brian F. O’Byrne (Anthony Reilly), Peter Maloney (Tony Reilly), Dearbhla Molloy (Aoife Muldoon), and Debra Messing (Rosemary Muldoon).

Directed by Doug Hughes; designed by John Lee Beatty. Lighting by Mark McCullough, sound by Fitz Patton. Stage manager, Carlos Maisonet; dialect coach, Stephen Gabis.

Presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club.  At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th St., Manhattan; 212-239-6200;http://www.telecharge.com. Through March 15.  Running time, 1 hour 35 minutes, with no intermission.