If you judge solely by contemporary theatrical representations, you'd think the entire country of Ireland was filled with hard-drinking sad sacks with a penchant for seeing ghosts. Paranormal activity — literal and figurative — practically lives in the plays of Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson, Brian Friel, J.M. Synge, and so on.
So it comes as no shock that there's a heaviness, the kind that only appears among the presence of otherworldly spirits, hanging over John Patrick Shanley's Outside Mullingar, a romantic dramedy directed by Doug Hughes at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. In this case, though, the ghosts surface purely as memories. For the quartet of lost souls at the heart of Shanley's new play, it's their remembrances of the past that keep them from taking the next step.
Set in a pair of rural farmhouses and the surrounding territories (John Lee Beatty designed the cramped, shape-shifting sets), Outside Mullingar follows Anthony Reilly (Brían F. O'Byrne) and Rosemary Muldoon (Debra Messing) as they realize their affection for each other over the course of several years. In neighboring homes, the pair has spent the better part of life looking after land and caring for their elderly parents (Peter Maloney as Anthony's father, Tony, Dearbhla Molloy as Rosemary's mother, Aoife). Anthony and Rosemary never took spouses, convinced they were destined to remain unattached.
As the play begins, Rosemary and Aiofe are mourning the death of Muldoon patriarch Christopher while visiting Tony and Anthony for a post-funeral chat. Amid the casual bickering, we come to learn that Tony believes he himself is on his way out and wants to provide for his son the only way he knows how: by selling the farm to an American relative to rid Anthony of the responsibility. Rosemary, who has spent her entire adult life waiting for Anthony to notice her, sees this as the straw that breaks the camel's back and takes it upon herself to change Tony's mind.
Like most romantic comedies, savvy audiences will know the play's outcome from the start. Shanley, to his credit, doesn't attempt to reinvent a genre he so expertly honed in 1987 with his Oscar-winning film, Moonstruck. Even with an odd turn during the denouement (which does morph into a beautiful moment) and a bit too much time focused on the parents, Shanley has written a compelling will-they-won't-they story with sweet dialogue and an awwwwww-inspiring conclusion.
Adding to that quality is the affecting duo that results in the pairing of Tony winner O'Byrne and Emmy winner Messing (in her Broadway debut). Her endearingly gruff exterior complements his air of resignation, and when they are alone together in the play's alternately heartbreaking and heartwarming final scene, there are genuine sparks. It takes a lot to make an audience collectively swoon, but these two make it look nice and easy. It's never too late and you're never too old to find your soul mate.