Port Authority

An Irish master meditates on meeting Ms. Right at the wrong time.

Rob Fenton, John Hoogenakker, and Patrick Clear in Conor McPherson's Port Authority at Writers Theatre in Chicago.
Rob Fenton, John Hoogenakker, and Patrick Clear in Conor McPherson's Port Authority at Writers Theatre in Chicago.
(© Michael Brosilow)

The power of attraction is often mysterious and frequently happens in a flash. For men, attraction typically has a sexual component. Sometimes, however, a man recognizes an uber-attraction in which sexual possibilities become secondary considerations. Port Authority offers three case histories, set in Dublin and told with the simplest of means as interlocking monologues. All three are elegiac in tone, tinged with rue and outright regret, and richly expressive through author Conor McPherson’s poetic shaping of seemingly everyday speech.

Kevin (Rob Fenton), 20, is living on his own for the first time, not very successfully, with two male rock-band flatmates and one female, Clare. Dermot (John Hoogenakker) is a career-challenged fortysomething husband and dad who unexpectedly connects with his boss’ wife. Joe (Patrick Clear) is a widower living in a retirement home who questions whether his attraction to his nextdoor neighbor 50 years ago was disloyal to his wife or sinful in God’s eyes.

McPherson makes these people studies in contrasts, giving each different cadences and vocabularies. Kevin is not yet completely formed as a man but already is more intuitively thoughtful than his male mates. Dermot, probably an alcoholic, talks and walks with swagger to counter his fears and failures. Joe is older, wiser, and pious, having led a good life. He seems to have no issues except regrets. McPherson forges little links between the three narratives but they are clever rather than important or necessary. The question nagging all three is: Could there have been more? Were Clare, the boss’ wife, and the woman next door in fact the destined soul mates of these men? What would the cost have been to find out? As Joe puts it about his brief encounters with his neighbor, “I loved someone I didn’t know.” She seems to have known, however. In each case the women are attracted to the men whom they physically touch in casual, chaste ways to the men's everlasting memories.

Port Authority is an intimate play in which the "fourth wall" disappears. A small platform and three stools are all that are needed to perform it, and even the platform might be unnecessary in the tiny 55-seat house of the Writers Theatre in Glencoe Books on Vernon venue (in actual fact, a room at the rear of a bookstore). Under skilled veteran director William Brown, the actors (all boasting impressive local and regional theater credits) stroll through the audience as they deliver their highly personal and emotionally tinged stories, without large histrionics.

Hoogenakker as Dermot has the strongest physical presence of the actors, due to his substance-addled character’s jaded edginess, hidden envy, and his penchant for four-letter words. Hoogenakker capitalizes on his character’s incapacitation and rough edges by speaking faster and louder than the others and sometimes prowling like a beast.

Clear as Joe is the most quiet and perhaps the most ordinary of the three, and yet he is the one who most recognizes the power of attraction and most deeply questions what might have been, voicing his regrets directly to the audience. In a play in which the aforementioned fourth wall doesn’t exist, Clear’s soft, rueful, measured delivery is utterly sincere. He is the most like my Dad at 75, remembering the woman he saw in a fleeting moment at 25.

Fenton’s Kevin, though, is the center of the play because he is the one who still has almost all his possibilities in front of him. A good, thoughtful kid a girl could bring home to meet the folks, he still has time to learn from his bad choice of flatmates, and to learn from what may have been a missed opportunity to know Clare more deeply. McPherson gives Kevin the opening and closing speeches and a bit more stage time than the other characters. With his ginger-colored hair and boyish looks and almost-shy manner, Fenton is quite convincing as a young man still learning about the world and himself.

Director Brown, an award-winning Chicago actor who has become an award-winning director, wisely makes his handiwork invisible by keeping design elements and movements simple. It’s like a quiet night in a pub where your new best friend pours out his heart to you. The result is a well-delivered evening of splendid language by a true heir to the Irish literary tradition. Port Authority is wistful and caring but laced with humor as three men explain themselves not for what they have done, but for what they did not do. Plays written by men about men rarely offer such acute introspection.

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Port Authority

Closed: February 16, 2014