Review of John Patrick Shanley’s play “Outside Mullingar”

Playbill cover for Outside Mullingar (Image source: Playbill.com)
Playbill cover for Outside Mullingar (Image source: Playbill.com)

Where exactly is Mullingar? Well, it is in Ireland, in County Westmeath which is in the midlands. But Outside Mullingar is now playing on Broadway.

The play, written by John Patrick Shanley, his tenth for the Manhattan Theater Club, stars Debra Messing and Brían F. O’Byrne with Peter Maloney and Dearbhla Molloy.

Harry Haun of Playbill.com promised a “real heart throbber,” and with a bitter, biting coldness to the air, snow everywhere, and the redness of Valentine’s Day around the corner, the timing  couldn’t be better. However, the cold and snow will last longer than the heart throbs.

The set, by John Lee Beatty, is fantastic, elaborate, and realistic. There is no doubt that when we first meet Anthony and his father,Tony Reilly, we are in an Irish farmhouse kitchen. Even the rain that falls outside is realistic. It is all very lovely and gives a very real feel to the set.

What strays in this play about love, loss and land, are the inauthentic lines, Debra Messing’s Irish accent, and the reality that no Irish farmer worth his weight in salt would sell his farm to an “American nephew”  in order to make sure that the “cracked” (crazy) only son wouldn’t inherit the farm. It just wouldn’t happen. The farm would remain with the son, and the secret of “madness” would be brought to the grave, by the father, and eventually the son. Respectability within the community would demand it. Peter Maloney as Tony in the play says, “There are somethings that are spoken of and some things that aren’t.”

These inauthentic subplots divert the play from  more serious topics  that do happen in real life. But Shanley’s treatment of mental illness, suicide and religious faith, or lack of, is treated comically because to discuss such things honestly is painful. He comes close during Tony’s final scene in the play, and easily the best. It is a pivotal point that could bring the play in a very different direction, but this is a comedy, not a drama. Who wants to see a play that deals with mental illness, suicide and death seriously? Very few. There is a broader audience to be had by treating serious matters in a lighter way. 

For me the play is absurd. It doesn’t matter that Anthony is off his rocker, or that Rosemary loves him despite the fact that he believes he can fly. It doesn’t matter that three people have died in the course of the play and two more think about suicide, and it doesn’t matter that Anthony and Rosemary’s amorous feelings for each other are not apparent to the audience. What matters is very little, because even though the audience might feel like they are in an Irish farmhouse kitchen, and despite the great acting of O’Byrne, Maloney and Molloy, Messing’s portrayal of a dictatorial Irish spinster falls flat. There is nothing redeeming about a woman who has managed since the age of seven to manipulate people. And that is what matters here. It is hard for me to willingly suspend my disbelief.

Messing was superb in her roles on film and television, but here she lacks the red-haired fiery quality of character that made us like Maureen O’Hara as the dictatorial Mary Kate Danaher in John Ford’s The Quiet Man. Messing is just not believable here, and that’s what matters. She stresses words unnecessarily and this makes her performance and delivery robotic. She comes across as mean and controlling most of the time.

Director Doug Hughes says the language is that of J. M. Synge‘s “Irish idiom.” I fail to see the poetry of Synge’s language here. There are lines that are not Irish at all, and a true Irish person will cringe at some. But for everyone else they will go unnoticed. Lines such as, and I am paraphrasing a bit here, as dainty as “Cinderella’s shoe,” stick out like a sore thumb. The vast majority of the audience laughed, and clapped at the end of each scene, and the surprise at the end stung us all.

Outside Mullingar is now playing until March 16 at the Samuel J. Friedman theater on Broadway.

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