The O’Reillys and the Muldoons have been feuding and fussing for 30 years over a small strip of land that separates their adjoining farms in Killucan, Ireland, or “Outside Mullingar” as we are informed by the title of John Patrick Shanley’s fiercely romantic play. Last season’s Broadway hit starring Brian F. O’Byrne and Debra Messing, the play now has been given a fine production at the George Street Playhouse under the direction of David Saint.
If the romantic leads, now played commendably by John Bolger and Ellen McLaughlin, haven’t as yet aligned with the emotional dynamics or established the physical chemistry that defined the performances of their Broadway counterparts, they do take full advantage of the barbed, humorously discursive dialogue that fuels the play . . . and they have the Irish brogue down pat. What is most rewarding is how both theater veterans David Schramm and Patricia Conolly trade off the delightfully disparate personalities that mark their characters as feuding parents and neighbors.
The older contestants with regard to this feud — the belligerent and ailing Tony Reilly (Schramm) and the stubborn and frail Aoife Muldoon (Conolly) — resist any easy solution and rather enjoy goading and baiting each other. Just how it impacts on a long disquieting, unresolved relationship between his odd 42-year-old loner of a son Anthony (Bolger) and her feisty 36-year-old independent daughter Rosemary (McLaughlin) serves as the play’s driving force.
Schramm as the crusty, blustery old codger Tony Reilly huffs and puffs through his tirades on Anthony’s shortcomings and on all the misgivings he has about him inheriting the farm. The action takes place over a period covering five years, mainly in the respective kitchens of both farmhouses as well as in a barn. Gliding on and off the stage with ease, the kitchens of each family have been evoked by designer R. Michael Miller to humorously reflect their owners’ differences and attention to housekeeping.
That Tony feels his farm would be better off in the hands of his nephew living in America, even though Anthony has been running the farm quite well for years, becomes a major bone of contention. What the playwright does to perfection and with Irish-ized ingenuity is to allow his characters to run off at the mouth for prolonged stretches, a sometimes wearying conceit. Conolly, who is making her George Street debut, is, in light of this, a sheer delight as Tony’s perennial sparring partner.
Though just widowed she isn’t above blaming Tony not only for his part in the feud but for all the ills of the Irish as well. Not at all happy that Anthony has invited Aoife and Rosemary to his home after the funeral, Tony makes his intentions quite clear to Anthony. He accuses him of not having any joy in his work, a feeling that is only partly at the heart of Anthony’s unhappiness.
Anthony’s despair is further triggered by the attractive Rosemary with whom he has had a testy relationship since they were children. Our patience is also tested in a protracted scene, a face-off between Anthony and Rosemary, that leaves Bolger and McLaughlin little to do but stand their ground and bark at each other.
Rosemary makes a point of irritating Anthony not only with her independence but also by smoking her deceased father’s pipe. Even harder to understand and a major distraction is McLaughlin’s unattractively streaked blonde hair — maybe I was secretly looking for a more Gaelic type or Maureen O’Hara with red hair. And why has costume designer David Murin put her in black boots and leather in the opening scene to appear as if she had just come straight from a Greenwich Village bar for a specific clientele?
Infuriated and deeply hurt by his father whom he dearly loves, Anthony is agonizingly frustrated by his long repressed feelings for Rosemary. Feelings that are both repressed and expressed are the crux of every scene, particularly a climactic one in which Anthony and Tony are able to resolve what has stood between them. This is when Rosemary is able to break through the barrier that brings them together and is play’s most touching, well acted, and directed scene.
There is a strong chance that many will be charmed by the play’s fantastical final revelation. I can’t say that I bought it. Shanley, whose successes have ranged from his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Doubt” to his Academy Award-winning “Moonstruck,” isn’t above lowering the credibility factor to make the malarkey plausible. It almost works.
Outside Mullingar, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Sunday and Tuesday at 7 p.m.; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees Thursday, Saturday, Sunday at 2 p.m., through Sunday, November 2. $28-$67. 732-246-7717 or GSPonline.org.