A playwright's handling of extended monologues is like a waiter setting a hot plate of soup down on the table. One false step and you've burned your customers. Conor McPherson built his 2001 play Port Authority entirely on monologues. As the well-acted current Atlantic Theater Company production demonstrates, this can be a risky business.
McPherson came of age as a writer at a transitional juncture in Irish history. He cut his playwrighting teeth at Dramsoc, the legendary University of Dublin student dramatic society, in the late 1980s and early 1990s- the heyday of the Field Day pamphlets of Seamus Heaney but just before the mid-90s transformative explosion of the Irish economy. The characters in Port Authority seem poised between two worlds, as if they are staring the Celtic Tiger in the face yet are unable to get over the cusp of it.
In Port Authority, a young, a middle-aged, and an older man, all from Dublin, invisible to one another, take turns recounting their life stories in multiple monologues at some vague cosmic bus station. Young Kevin leaves home, parties liberatingly, runs with headbangers, screws a floozy, but is unable to sort out his deep feelings for his housemate/platonic friend Clare. Midlife-ish, obnoxious, boozy Dermot escapes the wife for the holy grail of a high-powered entertainment job, only to arrive in LA to be told his hire was a clerical mistake. Elderly, retirement home-bound Joe recounts both his love for his deceased wife and a gentle yearning for a neighbor's wife, forbidden fruit which he couldn't bring himself to pick even when consentingly offered.
Kevin (John Gallagher Jr.) and Dermot (Brian D'Arcy James) speak in Irish Mamet-ese -only old Joe's dialogue is given a hint of poetry and elegance. Joe (Jim Norton) has a deft way of doing jig steps while holding his cane that suggests more of an inner life than the others. There's something factitious and not quite convincing about the playwright's contrivance of the wrong hire plot turn for Dermot -it seemed a borrowing from O'Casey, a Celtic Tiger echo of Jack Boyle in Juno and the Paycock falling for the ruse that an inheritance will bail him out.
The common thread binding the three characters is The Other Woman One Can't Have (even though two of the three Could Have). The play seems to be about the ineluctability of ordinariness: we dare not grasp the things we reach for, and even though we bloody well know we're wussing out, we're doomed to repeat the same cycle endlessly- age and maturity confer no wisdom to change things. But the tragedy of existential stasis does not license static dramaturgy. McPherson's dialogue is all uncut cinema verite- seanchas overheard at a barstool- rather than wrought drama. When playwrights shape extended character monologues to advance a plot thread, as in Bryony Lavery's Frozen, monologues take on dramatic suspense. McPherson doesn't do this never does he achieve any palpable counterpoint between his characters, even though there are vague hints of personal connections among them. Each of the three men seems to yammer into a vacuum.
This might have worked if director Henry Wishcamper had had the actors engage the audience more frontally. At one point he did indeed have Brian D'Arcy James come downstage and break the Fourth Wall. For me the play came alive at that moment. If the three actors had been directed to talk to the audience as if the audience were their barmates, their stories would have had more emotional impact. I sat for the entire 90 minutes wondering why the director didn't encourage the actors to do this throughout. To break down the Fourth Wall thus would have enlivened the play immeasurably, raising its characters' quiet desperation to a level of poig