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More Perfect Unions

Tea and sympathy: Peter Maloney, Dearbhla Molloy, and Debra Messing
Joan Marcus

To call Manhattan Theatre Club's Outside Mullingar featherlight is to underrate feathers. John Patrick Shanley's blarney-soaked romance wouldn't stand up to a soft breeze, let alone the torrents that drench John Lee Beatty's needlessly realistic set. The premise is too cloying, the scenes too long, and the dialogue almost parodic, more Irish than a whiskey-dipped clover.

Did I mention that half the characters die?

And that — impossibly, preposterously — the play is a charmer?

Mullingar concerns an old maid, Rosemary (Debra Messing in her Broadway debut and a crimson wig), and an older bachelor, Anthony (Brían F. O'Byrne). Since girlhood, Rosemary has had her sights set on Anthony. She has even frozen her eggs in case he dawdles down the aisle. (That he's over 40 when the play begins and impervious to her allure suggests he may take a while.)

Anthony believes that a psychological peculiarity bars him from matrimony. Rosemary convinces him otherwise. At a preview performance, when he finally confessed his ardor, MTC's damp, wind-chilled, and generally irritable crowd burst into the sort of "awww!" usually reserved for chubby babies and sleepy kittens.

Neither Shanley nor director Doug Hughes (typically assured) ever effectively explains why a pleasantly pushy woman like Rosemary hasn't simply dragged Anthony to the nearest church or why she has waited so many years to declare her love. After all, this is not a world of reticence. Anthony's father, Tony (Peter Maloney), and Rosemary's mother, Aoife (Dearbhla Molloy), spend half the first scene discussing their present suffering and approaching demise.

"Was I only born to bury and be buried?" Aoife asks. "That's about it," Tony supportively replies. Shanley shoves both into the grave with alacrity.

O'Byrne, who typically restricts himself to sterner, scarier roles, allows Anthony both his strangeness and his humanity. Messing can't match O'Byrne's nuance, but her feisty, fiery Rosemary might beguile men far odder than Anthony. Despite the script's ample faults, only the most stonyhearted spectator would grudge these characters their happiness. Mullingar isn't logical or reasonable or even likely. Then again, neither is love.

Seven score and 11 years ago, our fathers (and the occasional mother) engaged in a great battle. Now some of us like to put on itchy costumes and fight it anew. Row After Row, Jessica Dickey's genial, baggy comedy at The Women's Project, focuses on a trio of Civil War reenactors fresh from the mud and fake blood of Gettysburg.

When veterans Tom (Erik Lochtefeld) and Cal (PJ Sosko) arrive at the bar to recap their combat, they find a new recruit at their table. Not only is this soldier wearing era-inappropriate woolens, she's also a woman. It's unclear which strikes the greater blow against accuracy.

Dickey's previous plays have tended toward the stagey and mawkish. Row After Row is a more relaxed and welcoming affair. The three characters trade prickly banter as they down their beers. Occasionally, the lights shift and they appear to embody actual Civil War figures, but the less said about these self-serious passages the better.

When Dickey and director Daniella Topol confine themselves to the modern era, the play rattles along likably. Sometimes, it even borders on a kind of profundity, suggesting that waging the wars of the past may not always equip us to live in the present.

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Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
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At New York City Center Stage II

130 W. 55th St.
New York, NY 10019

212-581-1212

www.nycitycenter.org


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