Stephen Rea and Sean McGinley
in Ages of the Moon
(© Ari Mintz)
Stephen Rea and Sean McGinley
in Ages of the Moon
(© Ari Mintz)
If you didn't know you'd signed on for a Sam Shepard play, you might spend the first minute of Ages of the Moon, now at the Atlantic Theater, wondering whether you'd accidentally happened upon one of those pithy character studies about a couple of codgers in their twilight years, matching each other shot for shot as they contemplate the imminence of death. Well, you have. But it is a Shepard play, so you can expect some freaky detours and the occasional depth charge. Also, sly humor -- lots and lots of it.

Ames (Stephen Rea) and Byron (Seán McGinley) are old pals of several decades' standing. They may have met working around horses (racetrack allusions are dropped), or perhaps just bumming around the West. Ames is in exile somewhere "east of the Mississippi" (you can tell Byron disapproves), banished by his wife when she found evidence of a barroom hook-up he can scarcely remember. He has holed up in a decrepit rural homestead, there to drown his sorrows in the local bourbon. And Byron has taken a bus clear across the country to provide his friend with moral support during this difficult time, although the feedback he offers is more along the lines of: "What were you thinking?"

It's clear from the outset that Ames is the hothead, whereas Byron keeps a bemused distance: he's Fred Mertz to Ames' Ricky Ricardoesque sputterer. And of course, Byron's very self-possession -- and McGinley's timing is impeccable as he disingenuously drops each dry remark -- drives Ames to ever more incendiary explosions (which affords Rea some glorious fits). Brien Vahey's set and Philip Stewart's sound effects establish a lulling sense of downwardly-mobile backwoods torpor, all the better to offset a bit of surprise stagecraft guaranteed to blast you right out of your seat.

Afterward, Ames changes his tune so abruptly, it's difficult to decide whether to lend credence to the rather fantastical tale that he tells. Clearly the author means to keep us guessing. However, the gap between Byron's affect, before and after, is so great as to break the mood. Once so sharp and on the ball, Byron now presents with the blankness of the freshly traumatized. But then again, as he observes, gesturing toward his chest after the pair have repeatedly had at each other: "Something's clanking around in there." The story that spills out, weird as it may seem, is also a touching paean to the power of everlasting love.

It wouldn't do to mistake the imposed limits of this chamber play -- which premiered last spring at Dublin's Abbey Theater, also under Jimmy Fay's astute direction -- for lack of ambition. It's as if the author intentionally kept his fecund imagination in check this time around in order to get down to basics and keep his eye on the kind of stock-taking that's inevitable during the closing chapters of life.