Will it ever stop raining in the small Irish farming village that provides the setting for Pulitzer Prize winner John Patrick Shanley’s new play, Outside Mullingar? More importantly, will the two lonely neighboring farmers, Anthony Reilly (Brian F. O’Byrne) and Rosemary Muldoon (Debra Messing), ever drop their guards and put their childhood differences aside to find their own bit of personal sunshine no matter what the weather is like?
Given that Shanley has explored both the darker side of life and the lighter one in his long career, it may not be totally surprising that the answer remains, pardon the pun, in doubt until the final few minutes of the 100-minute-long piece, now being given a first-class world premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. But even if you’ve guessed the outcome, the journey is well worth taking thanks to Doug Hughes’ superb direction, the sublime work of the four-person cast and Shanley’s delicious use of language.
As we learn early on in a revealing and often side-splitting tete-a-tete between Anthony’s flinty father Tony (Peter Maloney) and Rosemary’s no-nonsense mother Aoife (Dearblha Molloy), Rosemary has been holding a grudge against the slightly older Anthony ever since he pushed her down in the dirt when she was six. She found a novel way to get him back, though, by convincing her now-dead father to give her the deed to the sliver of property that connects the Reilly farm to the outside road.
Moreover, in the tense first encounter we see between the sweet, decidedly clueless Anthony and the feisty, unhappy Rosemary, just hours after Rosemary has buried her dear, departed dad, it seems like forgiveness may be a long way down the road. But just minutes later, Rosemary not only rushes (unasked) to Antony’s defense, having discovered that Tony is threatening to give the family farm away to an American cousin rather than his own son, but uses threats and verbal force to get her way. We begin to think the lady doth protest too much.
Messing has been absent from the New York stage for nearly 17 years (her last appearance was in MTC’s Off-Broadway production of Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories), but she’s totally at home on the boards, giving a performance full of power, superb comic timing and heartbreaking vulnerability. True, her Irish accent isn’t always as convincing as her co-stars, and you can picture her as easily in the Big Apple as the Emerald Isle. Overall, though, it’s a pleasure watching this compelling actress take hold of this rich character – and, in her climactic moments, completely knock us off her feet.
Unsurprisingly, O’Byrne (who created the role of Father Flynn in Shanley’s Doubt) proves to be perfect casting for Anthony, a man who seems completely uncomfortable not just in the world at large, but in his own skin. Just how true that turns out to be is Shanley’s ace move, and I doubt any actor other than O’Byrne could deliver Anthony’s unpredictable key speech with the same intensity of feeling.
There are some considerable surprises throughout the show, including the complexity of John Lee Beatty’s deceptively simple set, that help ensure that our time in Mullingar flies. But just being inside with these four exemplary performers and Shanley’s glorious gift of gab is all we need to get by.