Playwright John Patrick Shanley is better at drawing characters (sometimes a lot better) than some authors with world-class track records. In his Outside Mullingar, the current San Diego Repertory Theatre entry, all four people are incontrovertibly dour, but somehow, they’re also funny, and — here’s the key — each in a different way. Compare that to Eugene O’Neill’s uniform obsession with demon alcohol or Harold Pinter’s refinements on situational dramas that involve permutations of the same few characters.
(Doesn’t make those guys bad playwrights. In fact, they’re excellent. They’re just a tad less spontaneous.)
If Shanley had tied up some loose ends and reined himself in near the show’s conclusion (which suffers from an absolutely unforgivable error), Mullingar would rank among the best mounts the Rep has seen in a couple seasons. As it is, it’s a fairly nice show, with a bubbly inspiration that basically befits the happy ending. The Irish setting fuels the call of romance here, as the two principals from mildly spatting families don’t necessarily hit the dating circuit amid their small-town remoteness – for better or worse, their relationship is refreshingly wholesome, and its portrayal never stoops to sticky-sweetness to get it there.
Middle-aged bachelor Anthony Reilly, a dyed-in-the-wool Midlands scion, doesn’t get out much (read: at all), and his reclusiveness comes back to bite him — in the person of his ailing father Tony, who’s toying with disinheriting Anthony and selling the family cattle and sheep farm to a nephew in the States. “You don’t love it,” Tony sizzes of Anthony’s commitment to the farming trade, while Anthony counters that Tony’s gloom-and-doom generation overlooks the value of those who only stand and wait, like him.
The Reillys have invited longtime friend Aoife Muldoon and daughter Rosemary to their house after Aoife’s husband’s funeral, with Aoife declaring that the land her man once bought from Tony is positively, absolutely not for sale. Whatever sticking point this may have created, however, can’t come between 30 years of friendship between the families – meanwhile, Aoife plans to make sure Rosemary inherits a farm of her own.
Rosemary, a legendary pipe smoker and an industrial-strength tomboy at heart, hasn’t forgotten that Anthony pushed her down when she was 6 and he was 13 – maybe that little scuffle prompted her romantic feelings for Anthony, which she carries to this day. From there, we’re privy to a very lengthy and underdirected dialogue on just how bad – real-ly bad – she has it for the big guy. We kind of know where all this will lead, but it’s nice to see it to fruition with our own eyes.
…[O]ne fleetingly wonders what life must have been like for the departed man in the family.
Therein lies one of the problems. Anthony and Rosemary have been attending the same church for decades, are veteran standard bearers of Irish farming stock and are as close knit as any two friends dare become – yet in the last stanza, Rosemary plows up acres of old ground on her feelings for Anthony so voluminously that we’re led to believe the couple has never discussed the matter. Surely the topic’s come up at an ice-cream social or two, for God’s sake, and its content surely would have exceeded the pair’s little shoving match. The wordcraft doesn’t make sense.
And how dare Shanley let slip the core tenet of Anthony’s (lack of a) sex life! Indeed, the “v” word eventually rears its ugly head – and while the revelation is no surprise to Rosemary (or us), it rings way overly blithe, almost gimmicky. We also at least wonder what pugnacious Aoife would have to say about Anthony’s abstinence, but we’ll never know – after the first half-hour of this 95-minute one-act, she never appears.
That’s too bad, because Ellen Crawford is on a roll with Aoife, the actor having established her character’s pepperpot tenacity the minute she sets foot in the Reilly home. With Carla Harting at the helm, hard-boiled daughter Rosemary is a chip off the old block (except for Harting’s quite substandard brogue) – between the two women, one fleetingly wonders what life must have been like for the departed man in the family.
Rep veteran Mike Genovese has a persuasive patriarch in Tony, and his touching deathbed scene alongside Anthony (Manny Fernandes) sports some of the show’s best moments. Fernandes has Antony’s virginality down, but the last long scene commands that he iterate many of the same ideas, sometimes ad nauseam.
Giulio Perrone’s sets are hardscrabble and modest, a lot like the people of the village of Killucan, the setting. There’s a nice burly quality to the costumes (dig the dog-eared frock Anastasia Pautova designed for Rosemary!), while David Scott’s sound and Sherrice Mojgani’s lights envelop the rest of the tech. Musicians Jim Mooney, Alicia Previn and Richard Tibbits sing a good folk game (Previn is a whiz on the violin); it’s a pity director Todd Salovey couldn’t work them more into the final, sometimes threadbare scene.
For as many opportunities as Salovey misses in coloring the action, the veteran cast responds in kind, leading to a staging that’s largely their own making. They win out in this blood-is-thicker-than-water tale, wherein Irish eyes are smiling regardless.
Full disclosure: I recognized Crawford (who in real life is married to Genovese) the second I opened my program. She played doe-eyed, careworn nurse Lydia Wright in NBC-TV’s ER, the medical soap opera that ran a colossal 15 years, from 1994 to 2009. Crawford, a cast member from 1994 to 2003, actually wed Genovese in character during the show’s third season – she hasn’t aged a day, and neither has her signature series. ER was, and is, the greatest dramatic entry in the history of American television.
This review is based on the production of Jan. 30. Outside Mullingar runs through Feb. 21 at The Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza Downtown. $33-$66. (619) 544-1000, sdrep.org.