For the first time in my experience of his work, Conor McPherson has actually written a play, and not an excuse for the recitation of past-tense narratives. It has flaws: It could stand a good deal more editing, and a lot less of its characters’ repetitious pussyfooting around what they mean. But just as the rather slight action was winding down to its somewhat hasty conclusion, while I was tucking my notes in my pocket, meaning to go home and write how pleased I was that McPherson had at last begun to understand what drama means, why—the curtain fell, on a trick ending so glib, arbitrary, and pointless that it reduces the play to a cheap and not very scary ghost story. Countless writers over the past two centuries have used ghosts to inject an element of transcendence into their work, a hint of something beyond literal expression; many more have taken ghosts and other supernatural beings literally, using them to construct stories that scare and thrill you in a genuinely disturbing way. There’s no shame in the latter mode, especially not in the theater. Some of Shakespeare’s best characters are ghosts; Tennessee Williams began his literary career as a contributor to Weird Tales.
Both Shakespeare and Williams, however, knew the difference between the serious part of the play and the supernatural junk they threw in to spook the groundlings. That’s where McPherson goes wrong. His story describes a simple interaction between two men, a lapsed priest who’s set up shop as a therapist (Brían F. O’Byrne), and a recently widowed restaurant-supply salesman (Oliver Platt) who thinks he’s being haunted by his dead wife’s ghost. As the therapy sessions go on, alternating with scenes from the therapist’s tangled private life, we learn that the salesman’s messy marriage offered ample reasons for his be-ghosting now, and that his bumbling novice healer comes well equipped with ghosts of his own. When the treatment’s completed (rather summarily), the men go their separate ways, one comparatively healed and one not. That’s a small story, but a plausible and interesting one, unlike the genre rehashes of earlier McPherson works like The Weir and The Good Thief. But then comes that ending, which either tells us something we already knew—the therapist has solved the patient’s problems but not his own—or sneeringly lets us know that something more effectively done in an old-style three-page magazine story has been slipped in on us while we thought we were watching a play. (To make matters worse, there’s even some flimflammery about an object, the transferred ownership of which may carry the supernatural with it. Haven’t M.R. James and his imitators long since worked that one into its grave?)
McPherson may mean us to see the ghostly as an image of the hidden connections between human beings. All four of Shining City‘s characters are lonely, isolated, emotionally impaired people who don’t notice or can’t express their connection to others. But this too is old stuff, and his way of writing it, all hesitations and repetitions, grinds the point in rather than dramatizing it. He gets all the help he could ask: Robert Falls’s staging, subtle and tactful, is his best work in some time. Few actors are better than Brían F. O’Byrne at delineating a disturbed personality: He catches the therapist’s haunted past and bothersome present in every silent glance. Oliver Platt’s monotone delivery always bothers me, but here he builds on it, cannily and in the long run movingly. Martha Plimpton and Peter Scanavino, with only one brief scene apiece, register powerfully. Yet even fine acting and direction can’t make Shining City more than a pale ghost of a play.
Even paler, to my taste, is The Faith Healer, the 1979 play in which Brian Friel started this whole narrational mode of Celtic drama. Like Shining City, Faith Healer emphasizes the psychological while toying with the supernatural: The title character, a charming mythomane who half believes in his curative powers, works his way among the tiny villages of Scotland and Wales, dragging along his wife and his manager, both too smitten with him to chuck the shabby situation. Death, breakdown, and misery result, but not as we watch; the characters simply take turns narrating events for us. As a mode of playwriting, this has always struck me as pointless—why bother with all the theatrical paraphernalia if there’s no dramatic event?—and I have to confess that The Faith Healer strikes me as pretty much pointless too. The hero knows something will go wrong, and it does. Everybody’s unhappy. The end.
That the hero is the least interesting role doesn’t improve matters, especially not as played, in Jonathan Kent’s production, by Ralph Fiennes, who seems both too young and too coolly urbane for the character and, finding no action to play, tries to get by on vocal color alone, with numbingly dreary results. If Cherry Jones is this itinerant’s wife, Memphis is north of Dublin, but at least Jones knows how to create and focus an emotion onstage. Ian McDiarmid gets all there is to be gotten, in humor and pathos, out of the seedy Cockney manager. But again, acting can’t make up for the absence of a play. I know, I know, there’s an Irish tradition of storytelling. But the whole charm of storytelling is that it can be done anywhere; it doesn’t require the vast resources that make these fancied-up recitations masquerading as plays look so pretentious and vacant.