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Outside Mullingar: John Patrick Shanley Discovers Ireland

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John Patrick Shanley has finally gotten in touch with his Irish roots and the result is a delightfully funny, touching, and thoroughly enjoyable play titled Outside Mullingar that deals with life, love, and the land in the Irish Midlands.

Beautifully acted by a splendid cast led by Brian F. O'Byrne and Debra Messing and smartly directed by Doug Hughes, Outside Mullingar starts with a familiar family quarrel, segues into a longstanding squabble between neighbors, then spins to the heights of hilarious absurdity. And in the process Shanley can stake a claim to join Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson as the brightest stars in the firmament of Irish playwrights.

It's a place Shanley has studiously avoided until now. A native of the Bronx from an Irish family, Shanley was so averse to being typed an "Irish-American playwright," he has spent most of his career writing about anything else. There was Moonstruck (Italian-Americans); Dirty Story, (Israelis and Palestinians); and most recently, Storefront Church, (black evangelicals in Harlem). And while the priest suspected of sexual abuse in his Pulitzer-winning Doubt is named Father Flynn, he is first and foremost an American.

Although Outside Mullingar opens just after a funeral, the story begins some 30 years earlier when a 12-year-old Anthony Reilly pushes six-year-old Rosemary Muldoon to the ground just outside his house, near the road that runs by both the Reilly and Muldoon farms. If he has forgotten the incident, Rosemary has not.

The lights come up on the Reilly farmhouse kitchen. Anthony and his father, also a Tony and brilliantly played by the invaluable Peter Maloney, have just returned from burying their neighbor Muldoon. They have invited the widow Aoife, given a sparkling turn by Dearbhla Molloy, and her daughter Rosemary, a strong-willed Debra Messing, back for a cup of tea or something stronger. It is raining. It rains a lot in the Irish Midlands.

The funeral they have just attended leads Tony and Aoife into a conversation about who will inherit their respective farms. To everyone's astonishment, Tony discloses he may not leave his farm to his son. The reasons he cites are that his son more takes after his deceased mother's side of the family than his own and that Anthony does not love the land as he should, though he has worked it his whole life and often just walks the fields alone.

The reasons, of course, are more complicated than that. And as is so often the case, the origins of today's problems are buried in the past. There was, for example, the sale by Tony to Muldoon of a small patch of frontage along the road that runs by their farms; there was the rejection of Anthony by Fiona, the girl he loved; there is the overt dislike of Rosemary for Anthony; and it all comes back to that pushing incident three decades ago.

But Shanley is a master at exploring the many layers of truth that lie beneath the surface of any story, and there are wheels within wheels grinding away in Outside Mullingar. There is a hidden reason Tony sold his land to Muldoon; there is a reason Fiona fled from Anthony; and there is a reason beyond being pushed to the ground that Rosemary disdains Anthony; there is even a reason Anthony likes to walk the fields alone.

Shanley could not ask for a better cast. O'Byrne is one of the best actors on the American stage. A veteran of the plays of McDonagh and McPherson (O'Byrne also created the role of Father Flynn in Shanley's Doubt), he can make the complexities and peculiarities of the most bizarre characters credible.

Although Messing is known primarily as a TV and film actress, she is a commanding presence on the stage and she gives a strong performance in her Broadway debut as the willful Rosemary, a perfect foil for the reluctant Anthony. Maloney is simply excellent as Tony and delivers a heartbreaking reading of a moving bedside confessional scene. Molloy is no less convincing as Aoife, especially with her finely tuned comic timing in the opening scenes. One can only hope Shanley goes back to visit Ireland soon.