Theater archives

Conor McPherson and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa Chase Their Tales


Playwrights these days tend not to finish the stories they tell us. I don’t mean those who flat-out refuse to do so, on the basis of some postmodernist premise that I’ve never fully understood: At least they’re acting on principle, however misguided. The difficulty sets in when writers who seem to desire to tell stories stop short and decline to go any further, as if they’ve come to the edge of some steep metaphorical cliff. It embarrasses me to feel, even metaphorically, that I’m in the crowd of onlookers yelling “Jump!”

Stories that don’t arrive at full dramatic resolutions have been part of the theater for most of the past century: Pirandello used them as a way of dramatizing his ideas about the theater itself, and Tennessee Williams let a major character in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tell the hero that his story was “fatally incomplete.” But nobody could say that either writer had shirked the dramatic substance of his plays; the incompleteness embodied that substance. But merely leaving the substance unexplored embodies no principle. It’s as if the play had been written, not to achieve any sort of gratification for author or audience, but simply to have another play listed on one’s résumé.

Conor McPherson, whose Port Authority has just opened at the Atlantic Theater, is now well established as a writer of half-seen plays. In his more recent works, which mate a wonderfully grotty Dublin naturalism with chunks of old-fashioned ghost-story kitsch, the characters talk to each other, but what happens makes no particular sense. (Apparently nobody but me realized that the patient in Shining City got rid of his ghost by giving his therapist the lamp.) In his earlier genre, to which Port Authority belongs, the characters live in separate voids, narrating their lives (to whom? for what purpose?) in the first-person past tense, with events simply running on until they run out. These give actors great storytelling opportunities—McPherson’s language is often juicy and always apt—but they seem terribly wan as theatrical events. You could sit in a bar or a bus station for less expense and be just as entertained, which is not something anybody ever said about Pirandello or Tennessee Williams.

Henry Wishcamper’s production of Port Authority does appear to take place in some kind of celestial bus-station waiting room, with its three characters mostly plunked down on the giant dark-wood bench that’s the main element of Takeshi Kata’s set, waiting their turn to dash forward and serve us another heaping spoonful of their life story. The three men are of different generations, all with some link to the rundown Dublin suburb of Donnycarney and some even vaguer link to each other. The youngest, Kevin (John Gallagher Jr.), is apparently the grandson of the eldest, Joe (Jim Norton); the middle man, Dermot (Brian d’Arcy James), whose story has the most dramatic ups and downs, is briefly mentored by the son of Joe’s former neighbor, though a discrepancy in names—probably intentional—keeps this from being entirely clear.

What the three have in common, carefully nested away by McPherson in stories that seem to be about quite different matters, is a missed chance at some sublime destined love. In each account, the man is married to or sexually involved with a woman who gratifies him physically but not spiritually; in each, he finds—and pulls away from—an unspoken kinship with a woman closer to his ideal. (Tristan and Yseult, one mustn’t forget, is partly an Irish story.) Removing consummation and dramatic confrontation, McPherson updates it x 3 for an age of small-timers, all grubby details and no nobility except in a few flickers of spirit. Contemplated afterwards, as one might contemplate a just-read short story, it produces a wistful sigh.

What it doesn’t produce, in the theater, is any particular sense of purpose. Why tell three stories instead of one? Why coyly keep the men from becoming aware of each other’s stories? Why locate three characters so realistically created (whose outer stories also have something to tell us) in a featureless void? Ninety- five minutes is a long time to stare at stasis. Wishcamper’s actors—all excellent, two of them experienced hands at McPhersonologizing—bring as much charisma, subtlety, and imagination as they can to energize the event; d’Arcy James, wholly transformed from his stint two months ago as the grieving husband in Next to Normal, makes an especially powerful impression. But energy poured into a vacuum, as you’d expect, goes nowhere. The sadness of unfulfilled love isn’t anywhere near the sadness of watching unfulfilled dramatic promise trickle away.

The dramatic promise in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Good Boys and True doesn’t trickle away; it seems to bump up, repeatedly, against an invisible wall and stay there, trembling in frustration, as it tenses its muscles for another futile collision. It’s the late ’80s. A prep-school superstar athlete (Brian J. Smith) gets caught up in a sex-tape scandal, and a lot of nastiness comes out of the woodwork. Aguirre-Sacasa knows the scene but doesn’t seem to know how to develop his story. The boy’s mother (J. Smith-Cameron), though supposedly a doctor, does nothing but lapse into a kind of nervous reiteration; his absent father’s perpetually postponed return home suggests both a desire to minimize the number of actors’ salaries and the evasion of a difficult but obligatory scene. Like many aspects of the story, the possibility that the boy’s bad actions come from a need to conceal his homosexual interests remains rigidly uninvestigated; his reiterated blank denials make Brick Pollitt look like Edward II by comparison. The inevitable scene that Aguirre-Sacasa does tackle, between the boy’s mother and the victimized girl on the tape, shows that, vis-à-vis the non-privileged classes, Aguirre-Sacasa’s heart may be in the right place, but not his ear.

Scott Ellis’s production, pushing everyone firmly along single-trait lines, doesn’t help. Smith-Cameron, like Christopher Abbott as the school’s resident gay victim, effectively pumps out a steady flow of neurasthenia; Smith conveys the hero’s obstinacy with conviction; only Kellie Overbey, as his aunt, appears interested in finding the multiple facets of her role. One can’t blame them for seeming to bang on doors that the playwright keeps stubbornly locked tight.