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New York City Theater

"Outside Mullingar"
Friedman Theater

Remember that ad, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Rye Bread? How about You don’t have to be Irish to love “Outside Mullingar”?

Authored by John Patrick Shanley, a name that reeks of the Ould Sod yet a playwright who, up to now, has avoided writing about his heritage. “Something in me hated being confined by an ethnic identity, by any family,” said Shanley in a Times article. The author, whose “Moonstruck” and “Italian-American Reconciliation” obviously focused on a different ethnicity, put his finger on one of the plagues infesting civilization: an over-reliance on tribal identity, the ruination of promoting the general welfare.

Filled with Irish locutions, brimming with a universal feel for land and people, “Outside Mullingar” is not only beguiling and joyful, but suffused with the international language of love and home. “Joy” is the word here, as in Tony Reilly’s threatening to leave the family farm to a distant relative instead of to his hard-working son Anthony, because he feels Anthony takes no joy in the work. To which Anthony replies “But I do it. Some of us don’t have joy.”

What Anthony does take joy in is dreams, for which he’s scolded not just by his Da but Rosemary Muldoon, who lives on the adjacent farm and who harbors both an open grudge against and a secret longing for Anthony.

Yes, this is a love story but also a fable couched in terms of the land, inheritance, humor, ghosts and death. In other words, a tale as Irish as can be. Its characters talk with the distinctive rhythms of shamrocks and leprechauns. “I’m gasping like an old hurdy-gurdy with the emphysema,” says Tony. Note the position of “the.” Or his later, “that man was half ghost and as mad as the full moon.”

The play also has one of the most moving father-son scenes, strangest love scenes and delightful tête-à-têtes you’re likely to see, thanks to superb acting by a quartet that balances pathos with comedy. Under Doug Hughes’ knowing direction, Brían F. O’Byrne, Peter Maloney, Dearbhla Molloy and Debra Messing are an ensemble that gives the appearance of having played together for years.

“We keep getting evicted from our own imaginations,”: said Shanley. “We are wanderers, dreaming, and then our dreams become real and push us out.” Which doesn’t stop the dreams.

--David A. Rosenberg
Feb. 16, 2014

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