Friday, April 03, 2015

A Play Full of Éire: Shanley's 'Outside Mullingar' is Delightfully Inviting -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Outside Mullingar
a new play by John Patrick Shanley
directed by BJ Jones
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru April 19

In the seven days from last Friday through Thursday I saw 5 first-rate theatrical productions of shows that had opened on Broadway within the past 15 months.

In each case I was able to travel from my bed to the theater door in less than 15 minutes.

The first four works were actually on Broadway, as part of a weekend New York jaunt centered around theater (though also notable restaurants, new museums, fine jazz, considerable strolling and more).

I saw three musicals--Cabaret, The Visit, Finding Neverland--and a play called Skylight, all a brief walk or subway ride from the Hotel Pennsylvania in Midtown Manhattan.

The fifth piece, a 2014 Tony-nominated play by a highly acclaimed writer, was seen Thursday night--not in the Big Apple but just minutes from my home in Skokie, IL.

Following a brief Broadway run early last year, Outside Mullingar is currently being staged by the Northlight Theatre under the direction of BJ Jones.

And while I had found Skylight, a revival of a 1995 drama by David Hare, to be terrific on Broadway, thanks in large part to stellar work by movie stars Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy, I actually found Outside Mullingar to be even more satisfying.

Certainly it didn't hurt that--with a $20 day-of-show ticket via the Northlight box office--I was in the front row in Skokie, rather than way up in the balcony of the John Golden Theatre on 45th Street, somewhat anxious about the show ending in time for me to make my flight home, but with much regard for Skylight (which just got a rave review from the New York Times), I simply enjoyed Outside Mullingar a bit more.

This isn't that shocking when you consider that the play is written by John Patrick Shanley, author of Doubt--one of the 5 best plays of the 21st century--and an Oscar winner for his screenplay of Moonstruck.

And it's not like I haven't routinely seen excellent shows at Northlight, especially ones directed by Jones, who is also the longtime artistic director.

Still, especially as Thursday night's audience was less full than it should have been, I think it's worth noting with pride that my "theater down the street" needn't take a back seat to Broadway--nor work being done by anyone anywhere.

That's a testament not only to Jones, but in this case scenic designer Kevin Depinet--who has created a fully believable interior of an Irish farmhouse on Northlight's somewhat small, rounded stage--and an excellent cast.

Certainly, Shanley has written a wonderful script, all the more impressive because the dramedy holds one's attention--with anticipation and delight--despite the story developing almost entirely as one might expect.

But it's hard to imagine Outside Mullingar being enacted any better than it was inside my hometown.

Based substantively on Shanley's relatives in central Ireland, and set in the farming village of Killucan--which is, yes, outside Mullingar--the 90-minute one-act features just four characters.

As the play opens, the Muldoon women--an elderly, unwell mother played by Annabel Armour and her spinster daughter Rosemary (Kate Fry)--have just buried their husband/father and are visiting the home of their neighbors, the similarly-matched father/son, Tony (William J. Norris) and Anthony Reilly (Mark Montgomery).

Years of sharing adjoining land have brought familial frankness, combativeness and underlying-if-begrudging affection among the Muldoons and Reillys--and even within them. 

Norris and Armour are well-paired as the elders who know their time is limited, yet are believably feisty as they carry out Shanley's sharp dialogue, which is an acutely-entertaining pleasure from the get-go.

Montgomery, who was recently stellar in Rapture, Blister, Burn at the Goodman, is excellent here as Anthony, a bachelor who is a bit addled and aloof, but not--as artfully delineated by the actor--a dimwit or dullard.

And Fry is simply fantastic as the spirited, stalwart Rosemary. Debra Messing originated the role on Broadway, but it's hard to imagine her being more perfect than or--for my money--preferable to Fry. (Brian F. O'Byrne had played Anthony in New York.)

With this setup, you might well guess where the story will head, and you wouldn't be wrong. But the glory of Outside Mullingar is in the dialogue, the characters, the warmth and the performances, not surprising plot twists.

Being single and of a forty-something age myself, I can't deny an identification with and embrace of the narrative involving Anthony and Rosemary, but scenes involving only Anthony and his father or among the two parents consume substantial stage time and are just as much a joy as those between the younger generation.

Outside Mullingar isn't the brilliant, bristling tour de force that Shanley's masterful Doubt was, and my @@@@@ rating may well represent acute delight slightly beyond artistic merits--perhaps dictated by my sense that Skylight deserved @@@@1/2--but it isn't all that often I see a play that I enjoy quite this much.


And if you call yourself a theater fan who just doesn't get to as many shows as you should, with an easy-to-reach (by car) north suburban location, free, easy parking and day-of-show tickets available for just $20--call 847.673.6300--there's no excuse not to take a decidedly lovely trek to Outside Mullingar

No comments: