It takes a pretty feverish imagination to see terminal turpitude in the humdrum goings-on of a rural Irish village. But Thomas Magill (Cillian Murphy), the narrator of Enda Walsh’s one-man play Misterman—now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse, in a production directed by the author—has the paranoid brain for it. A persecuted mama’s boy with messianic pretensions and a mania for recording—jotting down his neighbors’ petty sins in a little red book, taping damning conversations for future scrutiny—Thomas sees signs of impending apocalypse everywhere, and keeps careful notes for his report to the guy upstairs. (Giving a shout-out to Krapp’s Last Tape, the other Irish play in town this week about a recluse obsessively re-living the past through tape-recording, Walsh has an early sequence with Thomas hunched over the spools.)
Bullied, bedraggled, and begrimed, we see Thomas fume and fuss through some typical Inishfree encounters. (Walsh slyly sets Thomas’s mock-Gomorrah at the scene of W.B. Yeats’s bucolic vision of bee-keeping-and-bean-growing peace—where one active mind saw pastoral beauty, another sees sinister undercurrents.) He meets, and is righteously appalled by, a succession of bumpkin grotesques, expertly sketched by Murphy, slipping in and out of accents and character bodies with protean precision. Some girly pictures on a garage wall outrage his eyes; Toto songs on the radio outrage his ears (many might agree with that assessment). The dancing of a café-owning Fred and Ginger fancier is just unbearably lewd. While eating some cheesecake, he mistakes a local gal for an earth-walking angel—with tragic results, when manic adoration turns to betrayed rage. Most of the time, Murphy-as-Magill plays everybody, funny voices and all, but once in a while we hear scratchy voices—his Mammy, principally—emanating from the recording equipment strewn around, suggesting that everything we’re seeing has already happened and haunts Thomas in his isolation.
At St. Ann’s, Walsh gets a stage as grand in scale as his protagonist’s religious delusions. Designer Jamie Vartan fills the cavernous hangar with a multistory edifice of gorgeous industrial decrepitude—dangling florescent tubes, antique reel-to-reel machines, collapsing struts, discarded tires, rejected furniture. (The alibi for this mammoth design seems to be that a homeless Thomas is bunking in an abandoned factory). With no danger of doing any damage to the junk, Murphy is free to make a mess—and he does, hurling tables, spraying water, spitting freely. The set becomes a regular actor’s jungle gym, and he works up a sweat, running around, climbing stairs, getting drenched and dirty. If you like vigorous celebrity workouts, Murphy won’t disappoint.
But throughout Misterman, you can’t help feeling that you’re seeing the piece at the wrong size, bulked up past its weight class by Murphy’s celebrity muscle and a steroidal design budget. Though the disintegrating stage undoubtedly matches the character’s skewed vision of moral collapse, it frequently feels too expansively, majestically rotten for this small-scale play—it’s as if Thomas is squatting in King Lear’s loft apartment. Even if his fantasies frequently reach world-ending scale, Misterman is a story about one aberrant personality, a tormented man-boy lashing out—not the dissolution of a whole society. Nothing is in danger of coming apart here except Thomas. (The dingy-chic of the post-industrial-nostalgic design suggests European theater festivals more than rural Ireland.)
This proportion problem applies to the script, too. An expanded version of an earlier work, the play feels overstretched at 80-ish minutes. Walsh’s writing has a lovely, unforced lyricism, as Thomas conjures word-pictures of edenic innocence or hellish damnation out of everyday scenes. But despite the inarguable eloquence, the play outstays its interest—once we see poor pent-up Thomas beat a yapping dog to death, it’s clear we’re headed for some kind of climactic episode of misplaced violence, and you can’t help but tick off the religious rhapsodies until it finally arrives. Neither Murphy’s star turn, nor Walsh’s gift for the gab, make the outcome any less predictable. And Murphy’s magisterial control over his host of characters partly undoes the force of Thomas’s crack-up—this is a virtuosic acting exercise, but never a truly discomfiting portrayal of madness. It’s all too literary, too expertly performed, too monologue-ish, for that.