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“Jesus, what an experience,” says Anthony Reilly, at the start of Outside Mullingar, the new play by John Patrick Shanley. And it is, indeed, an experience – an extremely pleasurable one – to watch Brian F O’Byrne’s performance as Anthony, a 42-year-old bachelor farmer in this Manhattan Theatre Club production directed by Doug Hughes. Notable for the Broadway debut of Debra Messing, the Grace of TV’s Will and Grace, the interval-less evening offers a chance to watch Messing, O’Byrne and two veterans – Peter Maloney and Dearbhla Molloy – make the most of Shanley’s dialogue, which is equal parts blarney and bathos.
The performances and evocative writing go a long way to distract us from the drama’s not always satisfying construction: five scenes that play as much as a series of one-acts as a tightly integrated full-length piece.
Shanley is best-known for work set in New York – for instance, Doubt – but Outside Mullingar takes place in the Midlands of Ireland. Doubt began as a stage play, also starring O’Byrne. There, he was an unmarried priest simmering with sexual energy. In Mullingar, he bubbles with suppressed libido of a more unconventional kind. “I am a virgin,” he tells Rosemary Muldoon, the Messing character, who tends the farm next door. “We’ll solve that,” she replies.
The nominal plot of Mullingar concerns the disposal of the Reilly farm by Anthony’s 75-year-old father, Tony, and the recovery of a slip of land that Tony sold years before to Rosemary’s father. Emotionally, however, the play involves, eventually, a Much Ado-type of sparring between Anthony and Rosemary.
As they match wits in the final sequence, whose acerbity redeems the sentimental, if affecting, scene preceding it, the pair not only have a chance to trade insults but also to display at times contrasting acting technique. Born in Brooklyn, Messing sports a credible Hibernian accent. She hasn’t forgotten her stage training and in fact 20 years ago did another Shanley play, Four Dogs and a Bone. But she still has that sitcom tendency of arching a line up at the finish, asking for the laugh. O’Byrne, by contrast, remains in the reality of the scene. When he announces what animal he imagines himself to be, the reading is dead-flat, and the result is the funniest moment onstage right now in New York.