Oliver Platt and Brían O'Byrne in Shining City
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Oliver Platt and Brían O'Byrne in Shining City
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
If you had a dollar for every "you know" uttered in Conor McPherson's oddly mesmerizing Shining City, which concludes Manhattan Theatre Club's current season at the Biltmore, you'd probably have accumulated enough cash for a Caribbean vacation. The play's four characters throw in a "you know" whenever they come to a juncture in one of their sentences where they're not certain what to say next or are unsure that anything more need be said.

This phraseology might stem from the playwright's determination to write dialogue reflecting how people in general speak nowadays. Alternatively, he may be making a point about this specific quartet of malcontents: that they're more or less interchangeable. Though McPherson's troubled Dubliners face disparate, serious problems, they share the same underlying problem: Society has disoriented them so radically that they've lost the ability to be articulate.

I'm inclined to take the latter position and forgive McPherson the repetition, because I like the situation and the lost folks he's scrutinizing too much to dismiss this work out of hand. I also like that he's toying with a ghost story, something we don't see much of any more. In Shining City, we meet John (Oliver Platt), a Dublin businessman who claims to have seen the ghost of his wife, Mari, behind the doors of the house they shared before she was killed in a car crash. For counsel, he's come to therapist Ian (Brian F. O-Byrne), a former priest. Santo Loquasto has designed Ian's office/flat so that the high walls don't meet, and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind keeps a threatening storm brewing outside the upstage window.

John, whose mental health shows signs of improvement over the months during which the action of the 90-minute play takes place, doesn't know that Ian has his own demons. He's separating from the mother of his child, Neasa (Martha Plimpton), for reasons that are not established initially but become clearer when he brings home a troubled young man, Laurence (Peter Scanavino). As time goes by, the sense of guilt plaguing John because he wasn't communicating with Mari and had been slipping around with someone named Vivien has the effect of exacerbating the pain felt by Ian, who's also dealing with his wavering Catholicism. Meanwhile, McPherson keeps in the back of the audience's collective mind the ghost that John insists he's seen but Ian doesn't believe in.

As Shining City unfolds, you stick with it because Ian's equilibrium is so precarious and John's worries are so intense. Neasa's one-scene appearance, in which she tries to discuss the reasons for the end of her relationship with Ian, is also a fine piece of writing, as is the rather ominous yet tender scene between Ian and Laurence. You hang in even though all those "you know"s undermine a play that, you know, could make its point sooner than it does.

O'Byrne, who rarely plays a role for which he isn't Tony-nominated, and Platt have the hardest assignments here, yet they manage to shape cogent characters. O'Byrne is as vulnerable as Ian must be; Platt is rightly flummoxed at first but gets steadily stronger as he unburdens himself on the therapist's too-short, green Chesterfield couch. Both actors seem to have mastered their lines, although director Robert Falls might have helped them deliver the tricky dialogue just a mite more fluidly and fluently. Plimpton is equal parts outraged and wounded in her brief but telling sequence, while Scanavino brings out a couple of extra dimensions in a character that otherwise could be strictly one-dimensional. Despite the shortcomings of Shining City, there's sufficient shine in the writing and acting to make it a worthwhile evening in the theater.