NEW YORK—Waiting for a heavenly sign in order to tell someone how you feel about them is all well and good, but when the sign is interpreted differently by people, those feelings just might wind up never being revealed. Such is the case in John Patrick Shanley’s absolutely brilliant Outside Mullingar, a tale guaranteed to touch both the heart and the funny bone.
In the Midlands region of Ireland, 42-year-old Anthony Reilly (Brian F. O’Byrne) and his aged father, Tony (Peter Maloney), are returning to their farm following the funeral of long-time neighbor Christopher Muldoon. Muldoon left behind a wife, Aoife (Dearbhla Molloy), and an unmarried daughter, Rosemary (Debra Messing).
Getting Aoife alone, Tony broaches a rather touchy subject—the ownership of the right-of-way between their two adjoining properties. Tony sold the right-of-way to Christopher 30 years earlier. He now wants it back so he can sell the farm to a distant cousin in America, rather than leave it to Anthony, who fully expects to inherit upon Tony’s death.
Tony fears that Anthony, who has made no secret of his outright hatred of the drudgery of farm life and work, will end up selling the place. Worse, yet, he fears Anthony will die unmarried and childless, thus causing the farm to pass out of the family. Tony is determined this will not happen.
However, it turns out Christopher deeded the right-of-way to Rosemary, and she has no intention of giving it up. Rosemary has long been in love with Anthony, though she’s never told him of these feelings.
How Anthony actually feels about Rosemary is open to question; Anthony has had nothing to do with women since a long-ago love affair went terribly wrong. It ended due to an intensely personal secret of his, which he is afraid and ashamed to speak of.
The play is an interesting tale of two lonely people seemingly resigned to things remaining the way they are. What makes it so involving is the way the characters are clearly drawn, feeling so real they literally leap off the scripted page.
The dark moments are often sweetened with humor, making the show both hilarious and heartrending, often switching emotional gears at the most unexpected times.
Messing and O’Byrne play off each other wonderfully, and the two come off as old acquaintances who have known each other all their lives.
O’Byrne is wonderful as a man growing old in spirit before his time, hating his life on the farm and battling with Tony over his refusal to see the same joy in things his father does.
Messing is excellent as the determined Rosemary, someone who’s clearly not afraid to share opinions with anyone who crosses her path. She sets down terms that both Aoife and eventually Tony must accept. Yet during the course of the play, she also subtlety changes herself for Anthony in the hope he will see what’s been right in front of him the whole time.
Maloney is good as Tony, a somewhat stereotypical but totally endearing fellow with a contentious yet loving relationship with his son. In his heart, he truly wants Anthony to be happy.
Molloy is fine as Aoife, a no-nonsense and realistic woman. She offers words of wisdom that come from experience, which Tony, despite his own advancing years, has yet to learn.
Doug Hughes’s direction is sure-handed here, knowing what he wants from the actors and being able to get it throughout. He gently leads the story to a very believable conclusion—one that keeps the audience guessing until the very end.
John Lee Beatty’s set of the Reilly and Muldoon farmhouses feels both lived in and realistic. Costumes by Catherine Zuber fit in nicely, and the lighting design by Mark McCullough works well, as does Fitz Patton’s original music and sound effects—especially during a rain sequence.
Outside Mullingar is a gentle and compelling tale about the ending of old relationships, the beginning of new ones, the courage of people facing life on their own, and maybe, just maybe, facing it together as well.
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or visit telecharge.com
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Closes: March 16
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.