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Shining City, at MTC's Biltmore Theatre

Ben Brantley's rapturous review in the Times led me to expect a somewhat more interesting play than Shining City turned out to be. Then again, I didn't much care for The Weir, Conor McPherson's last play on Broadway. It wasn't bad by any means, but it wasn't sufficiently gripping, and - and - it addressed a peculiarly Irish pathology: the isolation into which so many intelligent people seem to tumble. Sometimes I think that this comes of trying to speak English with a Celtic soul. A little of it goes a long way with me.

Of course, there was great acting to hold my attention. Brķan F O'Byrne knocked me dead for the third time in a row. (See Frozen, Doubt.) This time, he played Ian, a former priest who has studied to be a psychotherapist and has just set up shop. Mr O'Byrne has a remarkable gift for portraying men under attack, from within or without. His Ian displayed the full range of responses, from empty bonhomie to vacant sulking. The high point of the performance came when he struggled with Ian's wallet and paid a prostitute: Mr O'Byrne's hands shook with shame, lust, and dread all at once. He was equally, if less dramatically, impressive when Ian refused to engage with Neasa, the mother of his baby. A compleat guy, Ian has worked out his own solution to a problem and therefore regards Neasa's demand that he reconsider it a waste of time. The difference in temperatures between Neasa's harangue and Ian's sullen staring at the floor was chilling.

As Neasa, Martha Plimpton was brilliant in a small part, fighting off the prospect of raising her child alone until beating at Ian's stone wall simply exhausts her, and, what's always surprising in such a role, retaining our sympathy for her character through the shouting. I am less sure of judging the performance of Oliver Platt. He seemed to be playing "the Oliver Platt" part, a bluff bull with a keening interior. His Irish accent - the play is set in a Dublin housetop - was extremely uncertain, even abandoned most of the time. But he inhabited the role of John, the only one of Ian's patients whom we get to meet, as if it had been written for him. As John held forth entertainingly about his problems, Shining City seemed to blend psychotherapy with the talk-show format. This just pointed up the huge distance that separates television from engaging drama. I did not feel that I was at the theatre making discoveries. I felt manipulated.

There are five scenes in Shining City; John and his romantic entanglements dominate three of them. Most of the action, therefore, takes place offstage and involves personages whom we never meet. I'm all for storytelling, but not when it's as aimless as it is here. John is not a particularly sympathetic character; one suspects that he'd be the first to sign up for sex with robots. As a psychotherapist, Ian can have no personal relationship with John, and he simply comports himself as a good listener - something that, as we learn from his scene with Neasa, he really is not. At the end, John gives him a present, because he believes that Ian has helped him. That's any patient's right, but I must say that it felt unwarranted.

Shining City marks Oliver Platt's Broadway debut. Also making a Broadway debut is Peter Scanavino, as Laurence, a character whose name is not, I think, spoken in his lone scene. It was during this scene that I decided that the play ought to have been called "You know...", where the phrase stands for something that the speaker finds it difficult or uncomfortable to name. A little of this also goes a long way with me, and there was a lot of it on offer. The vein of abortive, inarticulate, communication-avoiding dialogue has been mined of all interest. We know that guys have trouble with their feelings and can't finish sentences. And/but we've also learned that guys are not interesting. Or, should I say, that it is no longer interesting to examine the fact that guys have little or nothing to say. No matter how intensely Brķan O'Byrne conveys Ian's desolation, I can't feel very sorry for him, because he appears to have inferred, from the observation that the world is a tough place, that it's not his job to make his corner of it a better one. Like all guys, Ian is a minimal human being. Yes, he has feelings; yes, he is lonely. But he would rather clench himself into a fist of suffering than take on responsibility for his own happiness. 

Robert Falls's expert direction propelled this necessarily inert play through brilliantly worked-out scene changes. Half-lighted telegraphs of narrative connective, these often put Mr O'Byrne to work; in the last of them, in fact, he did a stagehand's job of rearranging the furniture. I must say that I very much liked Santo Loquasto's set: Ian's high room, with its large view of sky and chimneypots, had a faded shabby grandeur that seemed just right for this wounded play, and it gave lighting designer Christopher Akerlind plenty to work with. Kaye Voyce did the realistic costumes, and Obadiah Eaves filled the scene changes with intriguing sound. I have a feeling that dialect coach Deborah Hecht did her very best. (May 2006)

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