A couple of long-feuding Irish neighbors find themselves moonstruck in John Patrick Shanley’s delightfully quirky romantic comedy Outside Mullingar, now charming audiences at the Geffen Playhouse.
Shanley’s 2014 Best Play Tony nominee does tend to mosey along on its way to the love story that gets going about midway through, first filling us in on the back stories of the seemingly mismatched (but clearly MFEO) Anthony, 42, and Rosemary, 35, whose mutual dislike goes back nearly three decades to the day a just-turned-teenage boy made the questionable decision to push a girl and make her cry, something Rosemary has never let him forget in the ensuing years.
Not that the pair don’t have other things on their minds than their shared history of ill feelings. Anthony’s cantankerous ailing dad Tony has never been all that fond of his only son despite the still unmarried lad’s hard work and dedication, accusing him of lacking an Irishman’s love of the land, a failing that has prompted the older man to consider selling the family farm to an American nephew eager to return to mother Ireland and find himself a bride.
Complicating matters is the fact that Anthony long ago sold to the neighbors a 40-meter strip of land separating his property from the main road, thereby severely lowering its resale value.
Due to Outside Mullingar’s meandering start, some audience members might conceivably find themselves tuning out during its cute but chatty opening scenes. (An early chunk has Tony trading barbs with widow-next-door Aoife, the twosome debating which one is more likely to meet his or her maker, with Tony insisting that he’ll beat the widow by ten months … and the both of them gone within the year.)
Fortunately, those willing to take an Irish leap of faith will be richly rewarded by as moving a love story as Geffen audiences have been treated to in years.
Outside Mullingar harkens back to the Doubt playwright’s pre-Pulitzer/Drama Desk/Tony/Oscar-winning early years when theater fare like Italian American Reconciliation and the movie smash Moonstruck combined humor and heart in ethnically specific environments. (Moonstruck’s Ronny and Loretta may come from different cultural backgrounds than Outside Mullingar’s Anthony and Rosemary, but they’d make a fiery poker foursome.)
Under Randall Arney’s expert direction, a quartet of stage-and-screen luminaries bring Shanley’s lyrical words to life in one exquisitely shaded performance after another.
Jessica Collins is a prickly delight as the chain-smoking, joy-deprived Rosemary opposite an equally nettlesome yet ultimately irresistible Dan Donohue, who makes it three-in-a-row this year after his much lauded star turns in The Geffen’s The Night Within and South Coast Repertory’s One Man, Two Guvnors, and when the duo turn Outside Mullingar into a two-hander about halfway through, I defy anyone not to become invested in the possibility of a Happily Ever After for the squabbling childhood foes.
As for Robin Pearson Rose, the chameleon-like stage vet vanishes into Aoife’s wry Irish skin every bit as brilliantly as she did into Texas Mattie Fae’s in August: Osage County and South Boston’s Dottie in Good People, both at The Old Globe.
Scenic designer Anthony T. Fanning has created several finely detailed Irish interiors and exteriors whose only drawback is the length of time required for scene changes, though thankfully Peter Golub’s emotionally resonant original music helps keep audience members from getting fidgety.
David Kay Mickelsen’s lovely costumes are character-revelatory, Daniel Ionazzi’s diverse lighting design has a subtle beauty, and Jonathan Burke’s sound design adds just the right atmospheric touches.
Young Ji is production stage manager. Amy Ramsdell is assistant stage manager.
Phyllis Schuringa, CSA, is casting director. The roles of Rosemary, Tony, Aoife, and Anthony are covered by Donnla Hughes, Don Oscar Smith, Eileen T’Kaye, and Jay Whittaker.
To John Patrick Shanley’s list of unexpected love stories (Danny And The Deep Blue Sea, Italian American Reconciliation, Savage In Limbo, and Moonstruck) can now be added Outside Mullingar. Though the Irish-American playwright’s latest takes its good time to get down to the romcom nitty-gritty, the payoff is well worth the wait.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.
November 20, 2015
Photos: Michael Lamont