Matthew Broderick is giving a remarkable performance in the Irish Repertory Company revival of Conor McPherson’s somewhat odd 2004 ghost-story play, Shining City. The actor — whom I usually admire for sharing qualities of the great stage clowns, known for their inimitable styles — submerges those traits to a large extent as John, a bereaved 54-year-old Irish widower who is consulting psychotherapist Ian (Billy Carter) about repeatedly seeing or sensing his deceased wife.
Getting used to Broderick’s Irish accent (Stephen Gabis is the dialect coach) may take a few minutes, but once that kicks in, the actor gives, if not the performance of his long career, then one of the most accomplished and certainly one of the most unexpected.
During the second of the three scenes in which he appears, he has a lengthy, virtually uninterrupted monologue about the effect of a brief affair on his marriage, implying guilt as the reason for hallucinating. It’s a tour de force of emotional understatement that makes this Shining City a must-see. Many Broderick watchers, I predict, will now reassess the breadth of his commendable abilities.
What’s interesting about John is that he isn’t the central character. Ian, an ex-priest still feeling his way into a new life, is. (This could stand as the chief flaw in McPherson’s work.)
The playwright clearly sees Ian and John as versions of each other (Ian is a form of the name John). In their first session, John tells Ian that his wife’s ghost has left unable to sleep in their home, so he’s living at a bed-and-breakfast. In the play’s second scene, Ian is visited by his wife, Neasa (Lisa Dwan), whom he has essentially abandoned, with their daughter, at his parents’ house. In a later scene, he brings Laurence (James Russell), an escort, to his office, and looks to go through with the assignation, although he’s previously never been with a man.
While the meaning of the title of the play escapes me — unless it refers to a shining city on a hill that Dublin doesn’t qualify as — the meaning of the play is about guilt and its manifestations. McPherson’s dramatic comparisons between John and Ian go farther than their betraying their wives as they squat elsewhere. But offering more than that would introduce the worst kind of spoiler.
OK, all right, I’ll mention one detail: Early on, Ian remarks to John that one’s response to ghosts is a matter of one’s attitude. He admits even longing to see a ghost in order to accept that they truly exist.
In addition to the balance between Ian and John not quite right in terms of our attentions, McPherson inserts another quirk that may distract observers from the dramatic thrust of his play.
A playwright known for monologues, he’s aware that people pepper their speech with verbal tics. Like dropping a “you know” into a sentence to cover a lapsed or forming thought. John and Ian come from the “you know” population so much that single sentences — many of them left hanging — feature it over and over. Audiences may wait for the next “you know” so consciously that, you know, they overlook the meaning of the dialogue. (How do actors memorize these lines? Do they have to commit to memory every “you know,” or do playwrights and/or directors give them leeway to spout “you know” whenever the spirit moves them?)
If Broderick has the strongest Irish accent here, the other three actors give equally forceful performances. Carter, for example, remains still throughout Broderick’s soliloquies. (For long stretches, Ian takes no therapist’s notes.) At other times, he gets to play a character of abundant variations on someone devoted to helping others who himself needs help. Dealing with the accusatory Neasa, his Ian conveys both red-faced weakness and a committed belief in what he must do. Ian’s nervousness with rent-man Laurence, his eventual succumbing to urgent, if momentary needs, thoroughly convinces.
Dwan is harrowing when confronting Ian over his absence from a home where she feels like an interloper. Her slow acceptance of a reality she can’t deny is all the more moving. Russell’s ever-so-slightly-dim Laurence is at once threatening and pathetic.
Shining City is the first production in the Irish Rep’s home where a renovation, including a new balcony, is not yet completed. (The official opening takes place this fall.) Charlie Corcoran is therefore the first set designer to work with a revised stage space unencumbered by a sightline-affecting column. The office he’s proscribed for Ian is handsome. Lighting designer Michael Gottlieb, who’s charged with creating an important late effect, illuminates it well.
As the action begins, Ian is puttering before John arrives for his initial appointment. Sound designer M. Florian Staab has chosen a low-volume Bonnie Raitt singing “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” The heart-breaking Top 40 torch song is something of an inspired prep for what’s to come. Too often, members of the creative team — sound designers, lighting designers — are so subtle in their assignments that they’re work is barely noticed. Cheers to Staab.