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Shining City

Irish Repertory Theatre inaugurates its newly renovated space with a revival of Conor McPherson's 2004 play.

Matthew Broderick and Billy Carter star in Conor McPherson's Shining City, directed by Ciarán O'Reilly, at Irish Repertory Theatre.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Exactly 10 years after it first appeared in New York City, Conor McPherson's Shining City is receiving a major revival from Irish Repertory Theatre, which has finally returned to its permanent venue on West 22nd Street after nearly two years in the wilderness of renovation. While the theater looks great, the play could use a renovation of its own.

After premiering in 2004 at London's Royal Court Theatre, Shining City made its Broadway debut in 2006, receiving glowing reviews and two Tony nominations. A decade later, such accolades seem excessive — especially judging by this sleepy presentation of an already subdued story.

Ian (an appropriately aloof Billy Carter) is an ex-priest who has brought his taste for confession to a new job: He's opened a therapy practice in Dublin, and John (Matthew Broderick) is one of his first clients. John is literally haunted by visions of his late wife. She died in a car accident while the two were on frosty terms, and now he keeps seeing her ghost. He hopes Ian can help. Meanwhile, Ian is battling specters of his own, having suddenly left Neasa (a tough yet vulnerable Lisa Dwan), the mother of his child. She has slept with another man, and Ian suspects their daughter may not actually be his. Between the career change and family drama, we don't blame Ian when he seems to tune out at work.

Billy Carter plays Ian and Lisa Dwan plays Neasa in Shining City.
(© Carol Rosegg)

This is especially apparent when John delivers a monologue that lasts nearly 30 minutes, re-creating a therapy session in real time. This sounds dramatically enticing in theory, but it is actually very dull in practice unless the actor possesses a very Irish gift for gab, an intangible ability to make us hang on every word. Broderick exhibits only the slightest glimmers of that quality: He brings unexpected and welcome humor to an anecdote about an unpleasant trip to a brothel, but mostly manages to deliver a soporific recap of a secret love affair.

Director Ciarán O'Reilly attempts to break up this glacier of text by having Broderick inexplicably stand up and move behind the couch at certain moments — it doesn't help. A fundamental problem remains: Hearing about other people's problems is so much less interesting than seeing them played out. Unfortunately, Shining City is all tell and no show.

A thrilling exception comes in the late-arriving character of Laurence (James Russell very credibly playing rough trade), who subtly throws cold water on the play's whole premise: With his right hand in a cast (damaged, perhaps irreparably, by a firecracker), he's the one most in need of urgent medical attention. Yet he's also the most decisive and deliberate, apparently unable to afford the awkward dithering of the other three characters. His presence raises the proposition of guilt (and professional help talking it out) as a luxury.

James Russell plays Laurence in Shining City.
(© Carol Rosegg)

One suspects that Ian is paying a pretty penny for his Dublin digs. Scenic designer Charlie Corcoran has built an appropriately hip office space: An exposed brick wall with arched windows suggests a converted industrial space, with flimsier wood panels representing more recent renovations. Michael Gottlieb's artfully naturalistic lighting design streams through the glass panes of a skylight, showing the passage of time between scenes. Following a precedent set in the original production (directed by the playwright), O'Reilly stages these transitions: Underscored by Ryan Rumery's mournfully contemplative original music, Ian moves items around the room and nervously prepares to go out. These moments prove infinitely more fascinating than the actual scenes they buttress.

A shocking finale (no spoilers here) feels like an apology for 100 minutes of tedium, an attempt to leave us on an adrenaline high just in time for the curtain call. While McPherson's text offers the opportunity for cunning directors to create a nagging sense of unease around the bland dialogue, O'Reilly's production plays out purely as written. In this case, the words are not enough to capture our imaginations, or even our full attention.