Conor McPherson, the Irish playwright whose "Shining City" is now making its local debut at the Huntington Theatre Company, first achieved renown for his ability to craft remarkable monologues. His stories told by a character onstage - whether alone, as in "St. Nicholas," or to a roomful of listeners, as in "The Weir" - feel more like arias than speech.
That gift is abundantly in evidence in this tale of a Dublin therapist, Ian, and his patient John, who comes for treatment because he believes he has been seeing his recently deceased wife's ghost. John's monologues are skillfully constructed and beautifully expressed, and they build to give us a complex portrait of a fumbling and conflicted man.
But "Shining City" (a title that's never explained, by the way) turns out to be at least as much about the therapist as it is about his client. And when the focus shifts to Ian, the play becomes both less eloquent and less persuasive.
Even McPherson seems to sense this - after about 90 minutes encompassing five scenes, the playwright administers a theatrical shock so sudden and transformative that it would make a natural first-act curtain. "Aha," you think, "we've seen how John has changed; now it's Ian's turn." But no. The lights come up, the actors bow, and it's over.
Maybe that's brilliant. Certainly critics elsewhere have found it so. For me, it feels like a trick, and a cheap one at that. (Especially because, reflecting afterward, I realized that of course the play didn't really have anywhere else to go, either.) But part of the trick is that I can't talk any more about it, as giving it away would wreck the whole idea, so you'll just have to see it and make up your own mind.
I will say, however, that the expertise and delicacy of everyone involved in this staging, which transferred to the Huntington from Chicago's Goodman Theatre, provide ample rewards in exchange for the last-minute cheat. Santo Loquasto's looming, vaguely surreal set - a paneled Victorian office floating in a luminous Dublin sky, thanks to lighting designer Christopher Akerlind - is handsome, shadowy, and rich.
Goodman artistic director Robert Falls, who also directed the play's 2006 Broadway outing, reveals a deep affinity for McPherson's language and pacing. He guides the actors into unspooling their tales with bewitching hesitancy, passion, and fear, so that we're enchanted into listening, as they reveal their thoughts to themselves, to each other, and to us.
As John, the bereaved patient who feels guilty for having wanted to stray from his wife, John Judd is fresh, natural, and irresistibly watchable. McPherson gives him long speeches more studded with pauses and "ums" and "you knows" than even Mamet or Pinter would dare, and Judd dances through them with the offhand grace of a Zen master. When he stops to grope for a word, you utterly believe that he doesn't know what he's going to say next. And then he says it, in just the way you believe this character would.
He's also very funny, even as he's falling apart. Watch him mockingly imitate himself sending a text message, all thumbs and squinty presbyopic eyes, to the woman he hesitantly tried to commit adultery with. He's a middle-aged fool, and he knows it. So his gradual ascent from foolishness feels all the more moving.
Jay Whittaker, as Ian, has a more opaque and challenging role. Many of his lines are no more than "Mmm" or "Yeah"; part of what he has to show us is that he can't show anyone anything, as he can't even see himself. An ex-priest who's now starting over as a therapist in this gloomy Dublin office, Ian is at least as confused as his patients. He breaks up with the girlfriend who's just borne him a daughter; he reaches out tentatively for affection from a wounded rent boy; he's trying to feel his way toward some kind of new life, but we can't really believe he'll find it any time soon.
That's all potentially interesting, and Whittaker makes the most of it. So, too, do Nicole Wiesner and Keith Gallagher, in the too-peripheral roles of girlfriend and hustler. But it never quite adds up to a full human being, and, despite the intercutting, Ian's story never quite connects with John's. Yeah, yeah, they're both haunted. And?