Outside Mullingar, inside the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, was the warming reward for first-nighters who braved the bitter cold Jan. 23 for the world premiere of John Patrick Shanley's tenth play for Manhattan Theatre Club. 'Twas a real heart-throbber.
Love is more than a little myopic in this quirky 90-minute charmer, set in the rolling expanses of Ireland's midlands where the only eligible singles in the vicinity live on adjacent farms. More than three decades have bred a general indifference, and slowly they start to see themselves becoming masters of their unshared domain.
Back when he was 12 and she was six, he playfully knocked her to the ground, and it was love/hate at first shove. Years later, when his father was financially strapped, he sold that very spot — the right of entry to his property, necessitating two gates — to her father, who gave it to her. Irish grudges, no matter how childish, die hard.
What is obvious to the audience is oblivious to them. In one corner is Rosemary Muldoon, a Titian-haired spitfire replete with a Maureen O'Hara-do and spunk to spare; she has just buried her da as the play opens, and her ma is listing in the same direction. In the opposite corner is Anthony Reilly, an excruciatingly quiet man — no John Wayne by any shakes — a bashful innocent who believes "A man with feelings should be put down" and lives his empty life accordingly; he works the farm diligently, but "there's no love in it," notes his da, who is seriously tinkering with the idea of leaving the property in the capable, calloused hands of his American nephew.
When Anthony finally comes a-courting, it's for this American cousin, asking her to let the cousin get a look at her like a prize heifer. She turns the tables on him and says speak for yourself, prompting sweat, embarrassment and, "I see you in church!"
At the after-party held at that well-known Irish pub directly across the street from the theatre — The Copacabana — director Doug Hughes confessed he felt exhilarated on first reading the play. "It was something that was familiar from John — that great romantic spirit that's evidenced in a movie like 'Moonstruck' [Shanley's Oscar-winning original screenplay] — yet entirely transmogrified," he pointed out.
"The language that he's made for these characters is comparable to the Irish idiom of Synge. There's a thrilling conversational energy in the language of this play, and he's made it fantastically accessible to an American ear. I'm really proud of being associated with it. I'm proud of the fact that it's a play that has the guts to lean toward the light and it's on the side of love. I've often said, 'If Lennon and McCartney wrote plays, they might have written this play.' It's so fantastically hip about human beings and what they get up to, and it's also so convinced the answer to whatever the question is has to do with love. It's great to be around something like that."
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